Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Stepping Down “Under Pressure”

A surprising change at the top of the military's civilian chain of command.

Chuck Hagel

Former Senator Chuck Hagel, who has served as Secretary of Defense since February 2013, is stepping down as Secretary of Defense according to story just published by The New York Times:

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down under pressure, the first cabinet-level casualty of the collapse of President Obama’s Democratic majority in the Senate and a beleaguered national security team that has struggled to stay ahead of an onslaught of global crises.

The president, who is expected to announce Mr. Hagel’s resignation in a Rose Garden appearance on Monday, made the decision to ask his defense secretary — the sole Republican on his national security team — to step down last Friday after a series of meetings over the past two weeks, senior administration officials said.

The officials described Mr. Obama’s decision to remove Mr. Hagel, 68, as a recognition that the threat from the Islamic State would require a different kind of skills than those that Mr. Hagel was brought on to employ. A Republican with military experience who was skeptical about the Iraq war, Mr. Hagel came in to manage the Afghanistan combat withdrawal and the shrinking Pentagon budget in the era of budget sequestration.

But now “the next couple of years will demand a different kind of focus,” one administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He insisted that Mr. Hagel was not fired, saying that he initiated discussions about his future two weeks ago with the president, and that the two men mutually agreed that it was time for him to leave.

But Mr. Hagel’s aides had maintained in recent weeks that he expected to serve the full four years term as defense secretary. His removal appears to be an effort by the White House to show that it is sensitive to critics who have pointed to stumbles in the government’s early response to several national security issues, including the Ebola crisis to the threat posed by the Islamic State militant group.

Even before the announcement of Mr. Hagel’s removal, Obama officials were speculating on his possible replacement. At the top of the list are Michele Flournoy, the former under secretary of defense; Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and a former officer with the Army’s 82nd Airborne; and Ashton Carter, a former deputy secretary of defense.

A respected former senator who struck a friendship with Mr. Obama when they were both critics of the Iraq war from positions on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Hagel has nonetheless had trouble penetrating the tight team of former campaign aides and advisers who form Mr. Obama’s closely knit set of loyalists. Senior administration officials have characterized him as quiet during Cabinet meetings; Mr. Hagel’s defenders said that he waited until he was alone with the president before sharing his views, the better to avoid leaks.

Whatever the case, Mr. Hagel struggled to fit in with Mr. Obama’s close circle and was viewed as never gaining traction in the administration after a bruising confirmation fight among his old Senate colleagues, during which he was criticized for seeming tentative in his responses to sharp questions.

He never really shed that pall after arriving at the Pentagon, and in the past months he has largely ceded the stage to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, who officials said initially won the confidence of Mr. Obama with his recommendation of military action against the Islamic State.

In his less than two years on the job, Mr. Hagel’s detractors said he struggled to inspire confidence at the Pentagon in the manner of his predecessors, especially Robert Gates. But several of Mr. Obama’s top advisers have over the past months also acknowledged privately that the president did not want another high-profile defense secretary in the manner of Mr. Gates, who went on to write a memoir of his years with Mr. Obama in which he sharply criticized the president. Mr. Hagel, they said, in many ways, was exactly the kind of Defense Secretary which the president, after battling the military during his first term, wanted.

Mr. Hagel, for his part, spent his time on the job largely carrying out Mr. Obama’s stated wishes on matters like bringing back American troops from Afghanistan and trimming the Pentagon budget, with little pushback. He did manage to inspire loyalty among enlisted soldiers and often seemed at his most confident when talking to troops or sharing wartime experiences as a Vietnam veteran.

But Mr. Hagel has often had problems articulating his thoughts — or administration policy — in an effective manner, and has sometimes left reporters struggling to describe what he has said in news conferences. In his side-by-side appearances with both General Dempsey and Secretary of State John Kerry, Mr. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran and the first former enlisted combat soldier to be Defense Secretary, has often been upstaged.

While this story has just broken, the reporting and sourcing on the Times story appear to be solid enough to believe that it is true.  The story, in fact, has now been confirmed by both NBC News and CNN. The NBC News report quotes a senior DoD official as saying that Hagel “wasn’t up to the job,” a quote that you almost never hear publicly stated even by someone speaking off the record. Assuming that to be the case, it’s hard to see a development such as this as anything other than a setback for the Administration both politically inside Washington and in its broader military policy both in the war against ISIS and in other regards. When Hagel was selected to replace Leon Panetta at the Pentagon at the beginning of the President’s second term, it was trumpeted by the White House and its political allies as a stellar pick that would put someone who had actually served in combat at the top of the civilian command structure at the Pentagon. From the beginning, though, Hagel often clashed with Senators, most especially at his confirmation hearings, where he faced rough questioning from Republicans on the Senate Armed Service Committee, much of which was rather unfair. For a time, Hagel’s nomination was blocked by a group of Republican Senators, but in the end he was confirmed in a vote that ended up being closer than one might expect for a former Senator who was facing a body made up largely of men and women he had served with just a few years earlier.  Because of that, by many accounts, Hagel got off on the wrong foot with members of the House and Senate and has never fully recovered from that. Since being confirmed, there have been at least some reports that Hagel often clashed with other members of the President’s national security staff and that, unlike the President’s previous Defense Secretaries, he has never really been part of the the President’s inner circle, something that has no doubt been problematic as the Pentagon has shifted its attention from the budget issues it faced when he entered office to the beginnings of a new commitment in the Middle East that seems to have no foreseeable end at this point. There have also been, at times, some negative reports about Hagel’s own managerial abilities that often sounded like indications that he was not fitting in well with the Pentagon bureaucracy he was asked to run.

What is perhaps unusual about the way this story has broken, of course, is the fact that it is being made clear from the start that Hagel is basically being forced to resign ‘under pressure’ complete with quotes in the media from officials saying that a sitting Secretary of Defense “wasn’t up to the job.” While it’s likely to be framed as a resignation because that’s how these things are handled for someone at Hagel’s level unless there is some sort of scandal involved, which doesn’t appear to be the case here, it seems obvious then that Secretary Hagel is, for lack of a better way of putting it, being fired. Whether that’s because he indeed “wasn’t up to the job,” because of the personal clashes that have been hinted at in the past that I noted above, or because of some fundamental disagreement on policy is unclear, although one can assume that further details of what has happened behind the scenes. However, it’s framed, though, there’s really no other way to put it than to say that he is being fired, and in these early moments before the official announcement later today, it’s happening in a rather humiliating and public manner.

This means, of course, that the President will now have to find a new Secretary of Defense, and it will have to be on e that will be able to make it through the newly Republican Senate when it convenes in January. Some names have already been mentioned above, including a few that were mentioned when the President was searched for a new nominee two years ago. Other possibilities, of course, include former top members of the military who could be talked into returning to service as civilians to head the department in the final two years of the President’s term in office. Whomever the President chooses, though, it’s likely that they will face tough scrutiny from the Armed Services Committee, as will the Administration’s policies in the war against ISIS and the war in Afghanistan. In other words, expect quite the political circus over these confirmation hearings when the time comes.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Middle East, Military Affairs, National Security, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. C. Clavin says:

    If I wrote a book critical of my boss, I would expect to be fired too.
    But he probably made a few bucks.

  2. What book are you referring to?

  3. Neil Hudelson says:

    @C. Clavin:

    Chuck Hagel’s only book was published in 2008, and I don’t think its critical of the new administration, but was rather critical of some long-term American policy failures (the type that spans administrations). You are thinking of Robert Gates, whose book came out after he left the administration,.

  4. @Neil Hudelson:

    Or perhaps he’s thinking Leon Panetta, who Hagel replaced and who recently came out with a book that is highly critical of Administration policy

  5. C. Clavin says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    @Neil Hudelson:
    Doh…It must be Monday morning….

  6. stonetools says:

    Well, I guess Panetta isn’t an option to replace Hagel….

    I think its 50-50 that the Obama Administration ever fills that post again. I hope that Bob Work, the second in command at DOD, is really good.

  7. al-Ameda says:

    Just another typical case of the Second Term blues.
    People get worn down by the constant DC grind, and these days it’s worse than ever.

  8. Ron Beasley says:

    I have always disliked Panetta and thought Hagel made sense.Although I’m a left leaning independent I would vote for him over Hillary for president. He was right when he said ISIS was no real threat to US interests. At present it is primarily a threat to Iran’s client states, Iraq and Syria, and our so called allies among the Sunni states.

  9. just me says:

    I think the real challenge is in finding somebody who wants the job for the next 2 years. Lots going on right now and I’m still not convinced what we’re doing about ISIS is the right tack but darned if throughout one is clear it’s a whole list if bad choices.

  10. edmondo says:

    Any chance Obama will follow him?

  11. danimal says:

    I found it interesting that last week Sen. Cruz wanted to blockade all administration nominations except for high-level national security personnel. Why the exception, I thought? There must have been whispers.

    I wonder how long this serious-minded sobriety about national security will morph into a sad admonition that the SecDef nominees should not be filibustered but Obama forced it upon the poor GOP Senators with his choice of a clearly anti-American, terrorist-coddling, anti-Israel, weak-minded nominee like {INSERT NOMINEES NAME HERE}.

    I give it a month.

  12. Tyrell says:

    Who will be next to go?
    “Secretary Kerry, this is the White House calling. Please contact the president as soon as possible!”

  13. Gavrilo says:

    So, Chuck Hagel is being forced out because he “wasn’t up to the job.” I seem to remember a lot of Republicans making the same argument during his confirmation hearings. What do you say, Doug? Still think the Hagel filibuster was a silly Republican spectacle?

  14. Ben Wolf says:

    That Hagel isn’t getting along with the Pentagon bureaucracy is, I think, points in his favor. Certainly no one who has “done well” there has made the slightest dent in its dysfunctionality.

  15. Tyrell says:

    Can’t wait for his book to come out.

  16. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @edmondo: Yeah, in two years. Now, go pout in the corner.

  17. Pinky says:

    Kay Hagan would be an interesting choice, but I don’t see it happening.

  18. Ben Wolf says:

    Nice of the Administration to engage in character assassination as they kick Hagel out the door. The only failures in “strategy” have been Hagel’s attempts to push back against the neoconservative advisors surrounding the President; I certainly see no evidence the man lacks competence. Looking forward to his book.

  19. Mikey says:
  20. Eric Florack says:

    @Gavrilo: that’s an interesting point, and quite correct. But there’s another level of this, too.the noises that have been coming out of the Pentagon lately about how to handle Isis have been in congruous with what we’ve been hearing of the White House directly. I suspect that angle is being removed because as disconnected as he is, even he sees that Obama’s foreign policy is sheer folly.

  21. Eric Florack says:

    @Mikey: and what have I said repeatedly, since before Obama was inaugurated?