The press conference in which President Obama announced the resignation of his Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was surreal. Most of Obama's speech dealt with Secretary Hagel's solid accomplishment. Had I not known this was a resignation speech I would have thought the President was leading up to pinning a medal on Hagel for the great job he was doing!
The hurriedly organized press conference at the White House was quite a scene. As the President lavished praise after praise on his Defense Secretary, Hagel stood silently by his right-side looking uncomfortable but stoic. On the President's left was Vice-President Joe Biden, a close friend and supporter of Hagel's who looked visibly distraught. The media cameras were careful not to scan too far over the audience lest the public see the paucity of observers that occupied but a couple of rows of seats to watch the distressing spectacle.
As I watched the President drone on about Hagel's accomplishments and then watched with real sadness as the former Defense Secretary spoke a few words through stiff lips I could not but think of this moment as the beginning of the end of what was once (or so we all thought) a principled Presidency.
A President that once appeared to have learned the lessons of an over militarized US foreign policy, and been elected on his promise to rectify the excesses of the previous Administration, appears now to have lost his way. Guided by a White House staff that appears increasingly unfit for purpose, the President is reverting back to his predecessors policy of unending wars in countries where the US has been trapped for over a decade.
First in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan the Obama wars are about to take over and relight the dying embers of the failed Bush wars. Instead of leaving his successor a country that had learned the limitations and futility of its military interventions Obama is going to leave his successor and the American people with battles to fight for the next decade and beyond. It is in this context that the departure of Hagel signifies a tragedy, for the Obama Administration, for America, and the world.
Two years ago as a Chuck Hagel nomination for Defense Secretary was being discussed in Washington I wrote in this column:
For the military Hagel would bring, literally, a trench level understanding of how it feels to be a soldier on the front lines. To be ambushed, shot at and see fellow soldiers killed. He is a decorated veteran of Vietnam who left some blood on that vicious battlefield. Someone who instinctively understands what that one percent of Americans who have been and are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan must feel as they rotate through interminable deployments in wars without end in which there are no victories, just death and sorrow. He [Hagel] once wrote,
"As a political leader, you can never predict how war will turn out, only that it will be worse than you thought or planned for. You better be damned sure of your reasons for getting into it... what and why and how you intend to pursue your objectives before you take a nation to war..."
Isn't this the kind of leader the military needs on their side today, I asked then, celebrating the thought of Chuck Hagel in charge of the Defense Department. And I applauded the President's subsequent nomination and Hagel's confirmation to the position.
So it is with enormous sorrow that I watched Hagel's tenure ended at the half-way mark by a President who seems to have forgotten the pledge he made to Americans when he was elected: to finally craft a sane foreign policy, devoid of hubris, and over-reliance on military solutions. It is also a pledge I am sure he made to Hagel to get him to join the Obama team. It is a sad moment for the country and for the finest military in the world that Obama has not been able to redeem that pledge.
Chuck Hagel will come out this sordid episode bruised but unscathed. Alas, the rest of us, and America, will not.