Chuck Hagel leaves Obama's war against war

The surprising decision of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to leave his Pentagon post after only 21 months of service has been widely greeted as a combination of his frustration in the job and a conclusion at the White House that he turned out to be the wrong man for the job.

His close personal relationship with President Obama, and their shared belief that the United States should reverse George W. Bush's adventurism in Middle East by ending his war of choice in Iraq, seemed at first a good fit. But starting with Mr. Hagel's stumbling Senate confirmation hearings, he seemed passive and uncertain, drawing early doubts that only grew, particularly among the likes of Republican Sen. John McCain and other war hawks.


Mr. Hagel himself could not have been encouraged in that main objective by the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. It has taken the Obama administration off course, obliging the president to commit himself to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the new and growing threat. Nor was he likely pleased by the recent quiet White Housedecision to increase the number of American forces in Afghanistan.

The president's appointment of retired Gen. John R. Allen to oversee the administration's mission against the Islamic State also was perceived as a diminution of Mr. Hagel's involvement in that undertaking, already widely criticized as too slow and inadequate to assure success.


Mr. Hagel instead has been portrayed more as a supporter of American troops, as a former Vietnam War veteran who appreciates the sacrifices they and their families are called on to make. As Mr. Obama put it in accepting his resignation: "He understands our men and women like few others, because he stood where they stood. He's been in the dirt and he's been in the muck. And that established a special bond."

But that observation may have come off more as a rationale for his selection than a justification for a job requiring a hard-nosed ability and willingness to engage in the internal arguments between the Pentagon and national security advisers at the White House, over policy and strategy in the Middle East miasma the administration faces.

The fact is that the president's determination to extricate the United States from the Bush foreign policies has mired him from the very start of his presidency and has held him captive. It has been complicated in a major way now by the push by the Islamic State, which was barely on his radar screen when he took office.

Mr. Obama obviously now needs a Pentagon civilian chief fully focused on the primary task of maintaining a military force capable of meeting this new military/terrorist challenge. That challenge will keep the United States on the very "perpetual war footing" that the president earlier was determined to end in the Middle East.

Indeed, it is hard to see how he can do otherwise in his remaining two years-plus of his second term, already locked in a fierce political war the Republican Party, newly emboldened by its great success in the midterm congressional elections and imminent Senate control.

The president's decision in the wake if these political setbacks to turn to his executive powers to repair the broken immigration system only heaps more controversy on his doorstep, as his personal popularity slips, his personal frustration obviously deepens, and Republican determination to undo him becomes more personal as well.

The military circumstances under which Obama undertook his basic roadmap back to a more normal and pacific foreign policy of collective responses to international threats has been radically changed by the spread of armed Islamic insurgency in Iraq andSyria.

At the same time, Russian adventurism, first in Crimea and now in eastern Ukraine, has raised serious challenges to the role of NATO in what is taking on the vestiges of the old Soviet Union and the Cold War, even as Mr. Obama struggles with cuts in defense spending under the nonsensical sequester straitjacket. In other words, Mr. Obama almost finds himself back at square one in his own war against war as the prime impediment to American peace and prosperity.


Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). His email is