Why Obama just booted his secretary of defense

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President Obama announced today that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is leaving his post, and it wasn't entirely his choice.


The New York Times reported Monday that Hagel is "stepping down under pressure" as the administration faces multiple challenges in the Middle East, including the threat posed by the Islamic State extremist group.

Obama said at a White House press conference Monday that Hagel approached him last month about resigning. The president praised him as a "great friend" and "exemplary" Pentagon chief.

“This decision does not come easily to him," the president said.

The only Republican in Obama's cabinet and a critic of the Iraq War, Hagel was brought on as Defense Secretary to oversee the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and budget cuts at the Pentagon. But now, the White House is facing criticism over its national security strategy as the country has been drawn back into overseas conflicts.

The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg summed it up like this:


Just one third of Americans believe the U.S. military campaign against the Islamic State is going well, according to an October Pew Research Center poll. Over six in ten think the U.S. and its allies lack a clear goal in fighting ISIS.

And in a surprise move, Obama backtracked on his statement earlier this year that the U.S. military would have virtually no combat role in Afghanistan in 2015. He used a secret order to expand the fighting role of American forces to strike the Taliban and support Afghan troops on combat missions, the Times reported on Friday.


Among Obama's cabinet secretaries and senior officials, Hagel seemed like an easy fall guy for the administration's national security problems. Media reports describe him as someone who struggled in his post.

Hagel got off to a rocky start during his Senate confirmation hearings. And he had internal clashes with members of Obama's inner circle. CNN reported that he wrote a "very blunt" memo to National Security Advisor Susan Rice that was highly critical of Obama's Syria strategy. Pentagon officials have bristled at the White House's "micromanagement" of its ISIS and Syria plans.


Citing senior administration officials, the Times reported that Hagel kept quiet during cabinet meetings. He was overshadowed by others, such as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, as the White House formulated its plan to fight the Islamic State, according to the Times.

A senior official told NBC News that Hagel "wasn't up to the job."

As the first enlisted combat veteran to serve as defense secretary, Hagel received praise for his ability to connect with troops. But one poll indicated he has trouble of winning the trust of the national security establishment. Just 26 percent of people serving within the "national security community" approved of Hagel, according to a survey released this month by the trade publication Defense One.


Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.