Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is out — but whether it was his choice is less than certain

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and this is The World. We’re a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH here in Boston. Did he jump or was he pushed? The question you could ask right now of Chuck Hagel, whose resignation as Secretary of Defense was announced today. Chuck Hagel and President Obama appeared together at the White House and were all nice and polite, full of mutual gratitude. But reports of tensions behind the scenes have been mounting for weeks. Craig Whitlock is helping to cover the story for the Washington Post. What is going on here Craig? Why is Chuck Hagel out of a job today?


Craig Whitlock: Well, to answer your first question, he jumped after he was pushed. Clearly President Obama didn’t have a lot of faith in his performance. They both acknowledged they had started talking about this back in October. Hagel submitted his resignation today; he’ll stay on until they find a successor. But I cover the Pentagon and I know Hagel wasn’t looking to get out. He was someone who thought and hoped he could serve for the remainder of President Obama’s term. The president clearly decided otherwise; he wanted a fresh face in there.


Werman: If Hagel didn’t want out, what were the reasons Obama wanted him to go?


Whitlock: Well, there are a lot of reasons. I think part of it is the Democratic Party just got thumped in the midterm congressional elections. There’s a lot of questions about Obama’s foreign policy and national security strategy, particularly in the Middle East with the Islamic State but also with Afghanistan. So, Obama is under pressure to make some changes to show that he’s got a coherent strategy, and a lot of times you need a fall guy in a situation like that. Recall that President George W. Bush fired Donald Rumsfeld after midterm elections in 2006. So, I think there was pressure on Obama to shake things up on his national security team and Hagel was not considered a leading voice on a lot of international issues. There were some grumblings within the Pentagon that he was a little bit in over his head in managing this very large department, so that’s what came to a head.


Werman: Did Hagel disagree significantly with Obama on ISIS strategy or what to do with Afghanistan?


Whitlock: Those are good questions and now, as often happens in Washington after a personnel change like this, you start hearing from both sides about the disagreements and some of the finger pointing. I would say it’s not very strong in this case but the complaint we’ve been hearing from the Pentagon from people close to Hagel but also from the last two defense secretaries, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, is that the White House likes to micromanage the military, they like the micromanage the defense department, that they were always questioning the nitty gritty of troop movements and deployments, and how they organize things. Gates and Panetta in particular have been pretty outspoken recently, saying they got really annoyed by getting calls from low level White House staffers demanding an explanation for this or that. I think that certainly was the case with Hagel too. I don’t know if that’s why he left, but certainly he can point the finger back that the White House didn’t make it easy for him either.


Werman: So we’re kind of left to read the circumstantial writing on the wall. There’s this memo that was leaked last month on Syria where Hagel apparently criticized Obama for refusing to decide what to do about Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Was that significant?


Whitlock: I think it was. What was particularly significant is that was the first time I can recall that Hagel’s people leaked something that indicated he was having a disagreement with the president. When that happened, when word of that memo came out that he was critical of the strategy within Syria, I think that was sort of the writing on the wall in some regards. That’s when things clearly, in retrospect -- there were already discussions taking place about Hagel leaving and I think he wanted to make clear that maybe he was his own man after all.


Werman: Craig Whitlock with the Washington Post, thank you for the update.


Whitlock: Sure thing.