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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Changing World Shrank Hagel’s Appeal to Obama - With Obama Now Considering Re-entering Mideast Conflicts, Defense Secretary Was the Odd Man Out

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

Chuck Hagel was chosen to be the defense secretary who could help his boss, President Barack Obama , complete the exit from Middle East wars. It was his misfortune to arrive just when the president instead needed to consider re-entering conflicts in that tortured region.
That, as much as anything, explains why the fit was never quite right, and why he will be exiting his job prematurely.

The arc of Mr. Hagel’s tenure at the Pentagon serves as a kind of metaphor for Mr. Obama’s second term, at least on the national-security front. The second term was to be marked by the final and complete exit from Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by a decidedly un-George-Bush-like resistance to the constant temptation to jump back into Middle East conflicts.

Mr. Hagel was, on paper at least, ideally positioned to help oversee that new phase. He is a Republican with military credentials—decorated Vietnam War veteran, extensive work in the Senate on national-security issues—who from the beginning shared the president’s deep skepticism about the Iraq war. And he seemed to agree on the desirability of an extraction from Afghanistan.

His tenure got off to a famously bad start when many of his former GOP Senate colleagues opposed his nomination, in some cases because his antiwar sentiments were brandished a little too clearly for their tastes, in other cases because of suspicions that his aversion to Middle East conflicts was an extension of antipathy toward Israel. His confirmation hearings were bad enough that they prevented him from ever winning the confidence of the small and tight circle of White House advisers around Mr. Obama.

Still, he was confirmed in early 2013, at the outset of the second Obama term, and circumstances seemed aligned to allow him to focus on two important items at which he, in fact, proved adept. The first was pivoting security strategy toward Asia. The second was overseeing a reduction in the Pentagon budget that could be accomplished without tearing too many holes in the defense structure, and with the endorsement of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which was far from certain.

But soon two threats began to rise steadily: the turmoil of the civil war in Syria and the parallel growth of the Islamic State militant army.

The Syrian mess led to a fateful stretch in late summer of 2013 when the president very publicly pledged to attack Syria because of President Bashar al-Assad ’s use of chemical weapons, then hesitated amid congressional opposition, then ultimately decided against a military strike. There was little sign Mr. Hagel was deeply involved in what in retrospect may prove to be the most important military decision of the second term—though he was honest enough later to admit the administration hadn’t handled it well.

That was followed this year by the surge of Islamic State fighters, first in Syria and then in Iraq. In Syria, the moderate Free Syrian Army the U.S. had been supporting, fitfully, in the civil war there was in danger of being swamped by the more radical Islamic State. And in Iraq, the gains the U.S. had made over a decade of struggle were being reversed in rapid order.

Mr. Hagel’s antiwar profile seemed less useful when the administration increasingly was turning back to a war footing. The administration badly needed a public spokesman to deflect the charges, from Capitol Hill and elsewhere, that it had no clear strategy for dealing with the Syrian civil war and was falling behind the curve in the fight against Islamic State. But the White House never really trusted Mr. Hagel to be a reliable public spokesman.

Ultimately, Mr. Hagel found himself caught between military leaders in the Pentagon, increasingly unhappy at the administration’s reluctance to allow them to do more to protect gains in Iraq, and a president loath to rush back in. He vented about the lack of a clear policy for dealing with Syria—one that would allow defeat of both Mr. Assad and Islamic State—in a memo to the White House a few weeks ago. Yet he found himself without the full confidence of any side.

Inevitably, politics also intruded, especially after this month’s brutal midterm election for Mr. Obama’s Democrats. “Democrats feel vulnerable on national security,” says one Democratic national-security strategist. “Part of this is that Obama needs to turn around and show he has a serious national-security team.” Someone needed to be a sacrificial offering.

The administration has begun seeking more outside counsel on how to handle its security challenges. Vice President Joe Biden , among others, has been reaching out for advice.

Officials now realize they need a better plan, not just for fighting Islamic State but for addressing the deep-seated problems in Syria and Iraq that have given it an opening. As it happens, that isn’t the task for which Chuck Hagel was hired.

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