Rep. Buck McKeon, the outgoing chair of the House Armed Services Committee, didn’t pull punches when reacting to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s departure from President Barack Obama’s Cabinet on Monday.
“When the president goes through three defense secretaries, he should ask, ‘Is it them, or is it me?’” McKeon (R-California) said in a statement.
Obama has clearly decided it’s them, not him. Foreign-policy and national-security experts believe Hagel’s resignation will lead to the pick of a loyalist that will make the White House’s strategy even more insularly controlled.
But members of Congress — especially Republicans — say they will use the opportunity to push for a hard reexamination of a strategy they say has been bumbling and lacking coherence.
“There’s not much impact on policy direction vis-à-vis ISIS, which was being driven by the White House,” said Ian Bremmer, the president and founder of Eurasia Group, the political risk research and consulting firm.
“But a strong pick should help to limit the internal disagreements and leaks, particularly over the ‘no boots on the ground’ promise from Obama.”
Hagel’s job description had fundamentally changed over his nearly two-year tenure as secretary of defense. He came on as, ideally, a relative peacetime secretary, presiding over the end of the war in Afghanistan while dealing with a shrunken budget because of the cuts of sequestration.
But he ended up as a wartime secretary, as the Obama administration found itself dragged back into Iraq with the quick and proliferate rise of ISIS, which is also known as ISIL or the Islamic State. Obama even quietly expanded the military’s missions in Afghanistan last weekend.
“It might have well have been another planet when Hagel was brought in,” Bremmer said.
“The focus was managing a huge bureaucracy and keeping down costs. And bringing in a respected Republican with strong connections on the Hill didn't hurt. But with the war against ISIS the priority for the secretary of defense has shifted to policy … and Hagel just isn't a fit there. I don't think Hagel was ever going to cut it in that role — it's not his background or orientation.”
Hagel quickly ended up in a job that was different than the one for which he interviewed. And it’s clear there were disagreements between him and his boss once he became the wartime secretary he never thought he would become.
Multiple members of Congress said there was obvious frustration between the White House and Pentagon on issues relating to ISIS, Iraq, and Syria — particularly the White House’s micromanaging of the fight.
Obama has been criticized for a number of elements related to his strategy against ISIS. They include the lack of effective partners on the ground in Syria and his unwillingness to go after the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has only become emboldened by an international focus on ISIS.
“I know that Chuck was frustrated with aspects of the Administration's national security policy and decision-making process,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), one of the administration’s most frequent critics on matters of foreign policy and national security.
“His predecessors have spoken about the excessive micro-management they faced from the White House and how that made it more difficult to do their jobs successfully. Chuck's situation was no different.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) said he “particularly appreciated” Hagel’s “recent efforts to speak truth to power” about Obama’s “failed strategy in Syria and Iraq.”
“It’s clear to me Secretary Hagel realizes our failures in Syria have greatly contributed to destabilization in Iraq, and robust response is required,” Graham said in a statement.
Some of the disagreements between the Pentagon and White House made it out into the open. According to The New York Times, the White House was upset with Hagel when, countering previous comments from Obama, he said in August that ISIS represented an “imminent threat to every interest we have.”
The White House has also brushed back repeated comments from Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dempsey has on multiple occasions hinted that he could foresee scenarios where US troops would fight alongside their Iraqi counterparts against ISIS, something that runs contrary to Obama’s pledge of “no boots on the ground.”
“He never could break through the wall of White House staffers, and certainly could never command the President's attention like Susan Rice or Ben Rhodes can,” said Garrett Khoury, the director of research at The Eastern Project, of Obama’s national security adviser and deputy national security adviser.
Most experts expect Obama to fill Hagel’s position with a more party-loyalist type. Some of the most speculated-about candidates include three Democrats — Michele Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy; Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), a member of the Armed Services Committee; and Ashton Carter, the former deputy secretary of defense until December 2013.
Graham said any of those names would be “solid” choices, but he was among multiple Republican members of Congress who said the new nomination should provide an opportunity for a long, hard look at the overall strategy to defeat ISIS.
“This personnel change must be part of a larger re-thinking of our strategy to confront the threats we face abroad, especially the threat posed by the rise of ISIL,” House Speaker John Boehner said. “We cannot defeat this enemy without a broad, coordinated, well-thought-out effort that has the strong support of the American people. Thus far, this administration has fallen well short.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.