Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced on Monday that he is stepping down, giving ammunition to Republicans eager to paint the Obama administration as having no strategy when it comes to foreign affairs.
Hagel is the first senior Obama administration official to step down following the GOP’s sweeping victories in this month’s midterm elections and comes as the president’s national security team has been hammered on a number of global issues including the rise of the terrorist group known as ISIS and the Russian incursion into Ukraine.
“This announcement shows when you don’t have a strategy, it’s hard to come up w/a team to help you implement a strategy,” said GOP Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri on Twitter. GOP Rep. Andy Harris of Maryland tweeted, “Pres Obama’s national security policy is failing & world is in turmoil. It will take more than changing the Sec of Defense to fix it.” Similarly, House Speaker John Boehner thanked Hagel for his service but added, “New #SecDef isn’t enough...” And in an expanded statement, Boehner said Hagel’s replacement must accompany a “larger re-thinking” of the America’s military strategy, suggesting GOP lawmakers will take a tough-as-nails approach during the next confirmation process.
Incoming Senate Majority Leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, echoed that sentiment. “It is imperative that the next Secretary of Defense possess a sharp grasp of strategy, a demonstrated ability to think creatively, and the willingness and ability to work with Congress,” he said.
Remember -- Hagel, a 68-year-old former Republican senator from Nebraska, was narrowly confirmed in February 2013 after members of his own party launched an unprecedented and grueling filibuster against him. Forty-one Republicans opposed him and tried to stonewall him over a slew of issues, including his commitment to Israel, his toughness on Iran, and for opposing the 2007 surge of American troops in Iraq.
Perhaps, ironically, some, including Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain – who joined the filibuster against Hagel – told a local news radio station that the defense secretary actually “was up for the job” and that he was simply “very, very frustrated” as an Obama cabinet member. McCain later took to Twitter to take aim at Obama, saying he “needs to realize that real source of current nat’l security failures most often lies with his Admin’s misguided policies.”
McCain and Hagel have had a rocky relationship. In 2008, the Arizona lawmaker said he wanted to see Hagel join him in a potential McCain administration. But then McCain filibustered Hagel, and over the summer, called for everyone on Obama’s national security team – which includes Hagel -- to call it quits.
As msnbc’s Steve Benen writes, "McCain doesn’t want to say 'I was right'" after filibustering Hagel. Instead, he “wants to be furious with President Obama.”
Obama at the White House called Hagel an “exemplary defense secretary” who helped with the draw-down in Afghanistan and with the ISIS and Ebola crises.
Hagel said in a statement to Pentagon staff that it was a decision he did not make lightly “but after much discussion, the president and I agreed now was the right time for new leadership.”
But senior defense officials told NBC News that Hagel was forced to resign as the White House grew wary of his ability -- among other issues -- to take on ISIS.
Several Democrats, for their part, released statements praising Hagel for being the first Vietnam veteran to become secretary of defense. Outgoing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, “With the United States facing threats to our national security and around the world, it is my hope that Senate Republicans will work with Democrats to give swift and fair consideration to President Obama’s next nominee to this critical post.”
Hagel has agreed to remain in office until his successor is confirmed.