Reflections on Defense Secretary Hagel’s Tenure

I was never convinced that Secretary Hagel was the strongest choice for the position two years ago, but now that he is being pushed out, I am not sure that he’s the fair target for an administration foreign policy that–whatever its other strengths, and they remain considerable–has made most of its mistakes in and from the White House.

For example, the departure from Iraq in 2011 was something that neither Gates nor Panetta could prevent, apparently, even though both had opportunities to influence that debate. And that problem, together with the breakdown in Iraqi politics that ensued in 2012, and then the beginnings of the Syrian civil war (and President Obama’s decision not to get involved in that war that he made himself in 2011/2012) all predated Hagel’s tenure.

Plus, as best I could tell, Hagel was a fairly low-key but still effective promoter of the rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, making the mechanics of new basing and operational patterns work out smoothly and visiting a number of allied nations, as well as China, along the way.

And on the defense budget, Hagel managed rightly to push back against those who would have happily lived with full sequestration-level cuts to Pentagon spending, and pushed back as well, as best I can tell from the outside, against those who thought that the Army could become the principal bill-payer for defense cuts on the grounds that we were supposedly entering an era of no more big ground wars (as the 2012 Defense Strategic Guidance trended towards arguing, even if not quite that starkly).

So I’m not going to pile on and blame him for the current problems. That said, there may well be stronger options available to the president, and going forward, we now have no choice but to find out!