U.S. President Barack Obama had a hard time disguising his delight when he announced Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s forced resignation Monday, after less than two years in office.
Hagel’s smiles were equally forced during the press conference that focused on his de facto ouster, but the artificial appearance of harmony and amicability within the administration was maintained to the very last moment, as mandated by kitschy American tradition.
This brought the current chapter in the career of the former senator (R-Neb.) to an early end, before he had the chance to make his mark on the security doctrine exercised by the American superpower, but not before he was made into a convenient patsy for “all the president’s men.”
The irony of Hagel’s ouster lies in that before his nomination he was portrayed as the whitest of doves, promoting the message of new American isolationism and the desire to withdraw deep into the domestic American sphere. Recently, however, he criticized Obama’s hesitant policies on the fight against the Islamic State group, while also stating that the key to success on that front was increasing the efforts to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.
Hagel also seemed to have turned a corner on his approach toward Israel, from an antagonist who lambasted Israel and its allies in the American political theater prior to his nomination, to an avid supporter in upgrading the defense and security ties between Washington and Jerusalem.
Alas, Hagel — a dove reborn as a hawk — always remained somewhat of an alien within the Obama administration. Not only had he failed in formulating a new strategic doctrine for the Pentagon to follow, he was repeatedly portrayed as the quiet man in the cabinet, one removed from the political and bureaucratic fray around him.
Devoid of any substantial political base, the defense secretary failed to rally the president’s support for his policies. On the contrary, the fact that he did not hesitate to publicly criticize the administration, especially on its policies on Syria, incurred Obama’s wrath. Of course, Hagel also displayed amateurish naivety in general, and failed to properly manage his office’s subordinate systems, in stark contrast to many of his predecessors.
Given all of this, it is clear why he became such a convenient target for a political assassination by the White House.
Obama’s failure in the midterm election, which cost the Democrats the Senate, has set him on a new path, one meant to demonstrate aggressive productivity despite his lack of a power base on Capitol Hill.
Hagel’s ouster, alongside Obama’s willingness to pursue executive orders that bypass Congress on issues such as immigration reform are the first two signs of a new presidential pattern of behavior. They are Obama’s way of proving that the rumors of his lame duck administration have been premature, and that he can still get things done, both when it comes to formulating his top defense and security team, as well as his ability to govern.
It is too soon to tell whether, following six years characterized by prolonged presidential weakness, Obama will be able to demonstrate true leadership or whether this is another case of much ado about nothing, which will do little to change history’s judgment of the Obama era or its future.