WASHINGTON — Last January, President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel for the post of Secretary of Defense. Obama rode high. He won re-election for another four years in office the previous November, and a near majority of Americans approved of his handling of foreign affairs. One CBS poll from February said that 48 percent approved and 31 percent disapproved of Obama’s foreign policy.
On Monday, as Obama accepted Hagel’s resignation, the Democratic president confronted a changed political landscape. His party lost control of the U.S. Senate earlier this month, and most Americans dislike Obama’s handling of foreign policy. One CBS poll last month said that 33 percent approve and 53 percent disapprove.
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, did not discuss Obama’s sagging poll numbers in his public remarks at the East Room Monday. He listed three general accomplishments of his 21-month tenure, such as helping the Afghan military take greater control over the country’s security. “It’s been the greatest privilege of my life — the greatest privilege of my life to lead and most important, to serve — to serve with the men and women of the Defense Department and support their families. I am immensely proud of what we’ve accomplished during this time,” Hagel said as Obama stood to his right and Vice President Joe Biden to his left.
Obama noted that Hagel was the first enlisted man to serve as Secretary of Defense. “He stood where they stood,” Obama said. “He’s been in the dirt. He’s been in the mud. And that has established a special bond. He sees himself in them. They see themselves in him … For nearly two years Chuck has been an exemplary Defense Secretary,” Obama said.
Yet neither Obama nor Hagel gave a specific reason for Hagel’s departure. Last February, as the Senate voted on Hagel’s nomination, Republican defense hawks warned that Hagel would preside over deep cuts to the Pentagon’s budget. “I am friends with Senator Hagel, but I am not here to dismantle our military and let us become a second-rate power,” Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said in an interview afterwards.
Hatch’s warning was not quite prophetic; passivity is the charge leveled against Obama’s foreign policy.
In an autobiography, the previous Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, criticized Obama for being “reticent” with allies who could have rallied to form a coalition to punish Syria for using chemical weapons against rebel forces. The advances of the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq did not help Obama’s credibility with the public either. According to Time, last month 41 percent said more troops were needed to fight the radical Islamic group.
Hagel, 68, said he will stay on the job until a successor is confirmed.
Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.