Hagel's exit adds to US foreign, domestic woes

ROUGH RIDE AHEAD? Mr Hagel (left) and Mr Obama. Until recently, the Obama administration had been free of visible infighting among foreign-policy officials.


    Dec 01, 2014

    Hagel's exit adds to US foreign, domestic woes

    UNITED States defence secretary Chuck Hagel's sudden resignation has significance beyond the immediate event. Media commentary has primarily focused rather narrowly on the personalities involved, in particular alleged reported conflicts with National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

    Mr Hagel had been cautious and careful about employing military force, reflecting his direct military experience as a US Army combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He has received public praise from Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for sympathetic understanding of military service.

    As implied, others at the top of the Obama administration lack such military experience. This is of particular concern in the light of the ways in which the second term is unfolding.

    Early last year, President Barack Obama took the oath of office on two Bibles: one belonging to Abraham Lincoln, the other to Martin Luther King Jr. Both Lincoln and King emphasised inclusiveness and reconciliation.

    By contrast, Mr Obama's second inaugural address was highly partisan, emphasising the Democratic Party agenda. No olive branch was extended to Republicans, who controlled the House of Representatives and now have won the Senate.

    The speech was also notable for the remarkable absence of attention to foreign-policy problems, priorities or opportunities, aside from a passing reference to promoting democracy.

    In contrast, strong national defence was emphasised at the 2012 Democratic Convention. Killing Osama bin Laden was Exhibit A.

    Starting with World War II, US presidents generally have given sustained public attention to foreign policy.

    During the unusually peaceful years between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, president Bill Clinton seemed to personify a turn towards greater emphasis on domestic-policy concerns. Yet, even he had to grapple with Balkan and other overseas challenges.

    Here, Obama White House actions spoke louder than words. The Cabinet nominations of two capable Senate veterans, John Kerry for secretary of state as well as Mr Hagel for defence, were commendable. Both have extensive foreign-policy experience in government.

    In contrast to some of their most belligerent critics, each is a decorated combat veteran of the Vietnam War. Each volunteered for extremely hazardous missions.

    Mr Hagel is also a Republican, reflecting a remarkably durable but little discussed practice among Democratic presidents. Mr Clinton appointed Republican senator William Cohen to head the Pentagon. Franklin Delano Roosevelt named Republicans to lead the War Department and Navy Department during World War II.

    John F. Kennedy appointed Republicans or independents to many of the major foreign-policy posts in his administration: C. Douglas Dillon as secretary of the treasury, Robert McNamara as secretary of defence, McGeorge Bundy as national security adviser and John McCone as Central Intelligence Agency director. Mr Kednnedy, elected by the narrowest of margins, had special incentive to reach out.

    Bipartisanship was a Vietnam War casualty. Mr Obama deserves credit for returning to that tradition in these nominations, and for keeping on capable defence secretary Robert Gates from the George W. Bush administration. The precedent of Mr Clinton's appointment of Mr Cohen no doubt facilitated this commendable approach.

    Until recently, the Obama administration also had been free of visible infighting among foreign-policy officials - especially the secretaries of state and defence, and the national security adviser - which has often characterised Washington. The tension between secretary of state Colin Powell and secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld during the Bush administration is a recent unfortunate example.

    The administration's overseas and domestic difficulties are growing. Mr Hagel's departure compounds both dimensions.

    Be prepared for a rough ride ahead.


    The writer is a Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of After The Cold War.