Defense Secretary Hagel’s resignation: cooking one’s own goose.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel resigned his post in what was described as a “mutual decision.” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the defense department’s press secretary, said that it was not about policy, but about Obama’s last two years in office. Some close to Hagel claim that he was “pushed out.” Others have cited that the defense secretary was excluded from he president’s inner circle. Others still refer to problems created by the president’s reported micro-management style. Make no mistake about it, Hagel’s resignation was about policy; more particularly Secretary Hagel’s public pronouncement revealing their policy differences. And, the policy involved was whether or not to rule out use of American “boots on the ground” in the fight against ISIS.
Chuck Hagel believed that we would likely have to bring in U.S. ground forces at some time, if we were to defeat ISIS. And so he wanted to take exception to President Obama’s continued statements that we would not have any forces on the ground fighting ISIS.
Secretary Hagel was likely correct, with respect to defeating ISIS, and he had every right, even duty, to make his arguments to the president. But out of the public eye. Either directly to Obama, in private meeting, or in group meetings with the other cabinet ministers or national security advisers, where his arguments could be supported or argued against. The secretary of defense does not make national policy decisions. The president does, after hearing all the arguments pro or con, including a careful analysis of consequences. Once policy is made, the entire cabinet should carry out the president’s policy decisions. And, if they feel they can’t, in good conscience do so, then they should resign their posts. It is completely counter-productive for the president to make a statement of policy and then have one of his cabinet make statements in public counter to that policy. This is not micro-management. It simply is a requirement for effective governing
Textbooks on the presidency almost always devote a section to this very point, and they often give an infamous example from President Eisenhower’s attempt to push his agricultural policy through Congress. Without getting into too many details, Eisenhower made an important policy statement in strong terms urging passage of his agricultural bill. At the very same time, his secretary of agriculture was dissenting, in public. This was not only dysfunctional to getting Eisenhower’s bill into law, but it was downright embarrassing to the president.
Hegel may be right in questioning whether the Iraqi National Forces and Kurdish forces could defeat ISIS. The same argument, however, would be made if the United States were to defeat ISIS in Iraq, and then wanted to pull out its forces. Do we really want a permanent presence in Iraq, likely forever, and dealing with insurgency? I don’t. And I am mindful of other crisis areas in the same general fight against extreme Islamic militancy. Apart from the press’ focus on ISIS in Iraq and Syria as the crisis du jour, many experts in the region argue that the situation in Yemen is equally important to U.S. interests in the region, and that country has at least a similar state of crisis.
Perhaps a policy, not of our ground forces fighting in Iraq and Syria, but of our air power being used to halt the march of ISIS, and hit their strategic bases, is wisest for the moment. In any event, it is for the elected president to decide and not the secretary of defense. Chuck Hagel accomplished a great many changes in his term as secretary of defense. But, by his public dissensions with his president’s policy, he had to go.