Top Stories

Hagel's ouster reflects White House's tight rein

FRUSTRATED: Insiders say Mr Hagel's job has lost value because the diminished standing at the White House also leaves the defence secretary with less clout inside the Pentagon.


    Nov 26, 2014

    Hagel's ouster reflects White House's tight rein


    UNITED States President Barack Obama pushed Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel out of his job on Monday after less than 21 months, with White House officials citing disagreements over Iraq and Syria policy.

    While Mr Obama had praised Mr Hagel as "an exemplary defence secretary as we modernised our budget and our strategy to face long-term threats" in his announcement, the truth is that Mr Hagel had grown increasingly frustrated with the White House's tight management of policy and was ready to go, a defence official said. He resigned without a fight.

    The Vietnam veteran's departure spotlights how one of Washington's most powerful jobs - overseeing the world's strongest military and a budget of more than US$600 billion (S$781 billion) - has faded in the Obama era. Under Mr Obama, the strict White House control has often left Mr Hagel and other Cabinet members with limited authority and autonomy.

    "The White House has really wanted to minimise the influence of the Pentagon on policy," said Rosa Brooks, who was counsellor to then-undersecretary of defence for policy Michele Flournoy during Mr Obama's first term.

    Like his immediate predecessors at the Pentagon, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, Mr Hagel, a Republican, chafed at the way a small cadre of Obama loyalists centralised power in the White House. When Mr Obama backed off from a threat to bomb Syria last year, he made the decision on a walk with his chief of staff, Denis McDonough. Mr Hagel was informed of the decision later.

    Tensions between Mr Hagel and White House aides got so bad, the defence official said, that Mr Hagel would often phone Mr Obama after the meetings to make sure his voice was heard.

    The White House's National Security Council staff has grown substantially under Mr Obama to roughly 270 people, from about 200 under president George W. Bush.

    Its size and physical proximity to the White House, just across a small access road, have given it greater influence than Cabinet agencies in the development and, sometimes, implementation of policy, according to a former defence official.

    During his stint leading the Defence Department, Mr Hagel bristled at his treatment by Mr Obama's aides, who often shot down his ideas in meetings.

    One of his concerns centred on US policy in Iraq and Syria, where limiting the use of American military force in Syria to Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other extremist groups threatens to strengthen dictator Bashar Al-Assad and discourage allies such as Saudi Arabia from participating in the coalition.

    Last month, Mr Hagel wrote to Mr Obama's National Security Adviser, Susan Rice, with whom he often clashed, seeking clarity on policy towards Mr Assad.

    While it confirmed the fears of some lawmakers, the letter infuriated White House aides.

    The defence budget was another source of friction, particularly the constraints imposed by automatic cuts known as sequestration.

    Mr Hagel viewed sequestration as a political and policy blunder based on a bad reading of the likely Republican response and an even worse assessment of growing threats around the world. The threats included Islamic extremism, the collapse of authoritarian Arab regimes, a newly assertive China and Russian President Vladimir Putin's territorial ambitions.

    All of those dangers, the officials said, were highlighted in US and allied intelligence analyses, but officials around Mr Obama chose to highlight a more favourable narrative.

    Mr Hagel pushed back, arguing that the proposed budget was insufficient in the light of the growing threats.

    While the budget battle was not the main cause of tension between the White House and the Pentagon, it didn't help.

    "It's like financial troubles in a marriage that's on the rocks," said Eliot Cohen, who served as an official at the Defence and State departments under Republican presidents. "It makes everything worse."

    None of Mr Obama's defence secretaries has had the clout wielded by Robert McNamara, who helped lead the US into the Vietnam War, and Donald Rumsfeld, who crafted the American military response after the Sept 11, 2001 attacks.

    Washington insiders say that the job has lost value because the diminished standing at the White House also leaves the defence secretary with less clout inside the Pentagon. That is especially true in the final two years of the administration, when career officials know they can wait out the politically appointed civilian in charge.

    "They're not going to do anything now," said former representative Ellen Tauscher, who headed a sub-committee of the House Armed Services Committee and later served as an undersecretary of state in the Obama administration.

    "You get into this kind of death spiral. The more that they understand you don't have the juice to get things done inside the Sit Room, the less they're going to be willing to work with you to get done the things that you need to get done," said Ms Tauscher, using shorthand to describe the White House Situation Room.

    Mr Gates, who was Mr Obama's first defence secretary after serving in the same capacity under Mr Bush, said that he saw politics in the White House's effort to keep the Pentagon on a short leash.

    "It was that micromanagement that drove me crazy," Mr Gates said earlier this month.

    "I think when a president wants highly centralised control" at "the degree of micromanagement that I'm describing, that's not bureaucratic. That's political," he said.