- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2014

President Obama accepted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s resignation Monday, marking the latest washout of the president’s tenure and raising questions about whether he’ll be able to put the right team in place for his final two years in office.

The White House also seemed to set the stage for more departures, in addition to the Pentagon post and the opening created by outgoing Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said he “wouldn’t be surprised” by more resignations, though he wouldn’t hint at who else may be on their way out the door.

Mr. Hagel, the only Republican in Mr. Obama’s Cabinet, had been marginalized for months, and numerous reports said he was pushed out and that the Defense Department was being micromanaged out of the West Wing of the White House.

He becomes the latest member of the president’s national security team to resign and the third defense secretary to leave amid turmoil. Both of Mr. Hagel’s predecessors, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, blasted Mr. Obama after leaving the Pentagon, penning books that were highly critical of aspects of the administration’s foreign policy.

In addition to the Pentagon chiefs, Mr. Obama also has seen his top diplomat, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, depart after the 2012 election. She was replaced by former Sen. John F. Kerry.

Mr. Obama also has had three national security advisers, with James Jones lasting less than two years and Tom Donilon lasting less than three. The job now is held by Susan E. Rice.

The White House denies that Mr. Hagel left because of friction with the president. Administration officials went to great lengths Monday to praise Mr. Hagel, saying he did an admirable job of dealing with budgetary challenges, confronting sexual abuse in the military and other tasks that were expected to be his main points of focus when he took the job two years ago.

But officials also said they are looking for someone with different skills to take them into the final two years of this administration, when Mr. Obama will be forced to confront a resurgent terrorist threat in Iraq and Syria, Russia’s quasi-invasion of Ukraine, an increasingly powerful and ambitious China and other unexpected flashpoints in all corners of the globe.

“What you’ve had in the past couple of years is grappling — you could say floundering — in dealing with a set of challenges that the president surely did not expect on Inauguration Day 2009,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a professor of international diplomacy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and a former State Department official.

“In such circumstances, national security teams have to generate new answers, which they find it hard to do. The president was seemingly happy with his ability to downsize American national security policy and shift to a domestic agenda. It’s not a mystery why Chuck Hagel did not begin a whole new set of innovative policies — the president hadn’t asked him to innovate. The president asked him to mind the store. For that job, Chuck Hagel would have been a perfectly good secretary of defense,” he said.

The announcement is the latest in a series of cabinet departures and agency resignations that extend beyond the president’s national security team.

In addition to Mr. Holder’s resignation, the White House earlier this year tapped a new Health and Human Services secretary, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, to replace Kathleen Sebelius after last year’s disastrous rollout of Obamacare.

Also this year, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki resigned after reports of extended wait times for veterans and efforts by VA personnel to mask the problems.

Most recently, the president was forced to replace Secret Service chief Julia Pierson after a series of embarrassing mishaps, including an intruder making it over the White House fence and into the complex.

But the Pentagon post consistently has caused the most political headaches for the president, with both Mr. Gates and Mr. Panetta garnering huge amounts of media attention with their critiques of the White House and its foreign policy. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Hagel will follow the same playbook.

Despite reports of conflict between Mr. Hagel and the president — the latest of which centered on a memo written by the outgoing secretary blasting U.S. policy toward Syria — the two men gave no indication of animosity Monday as they appeared together at the White House.

The administration has cast Mr. Hagel’s resignation as a mutual decision between he and Mr. Obama, refusing to say whether the president asked the secretary to resign while simultaneously saying both believed new leadership was needed at the Pentagon.

“Over two years, Chuck has been an exemplary defense secretary, providing a steady hand as we modernized our strategy and budget to meet long-term threats while still responding to immediate challenges like [the Islamic State] and Ebola. Thanks to Chuck, our military is on a firmer footing,” the president said.

He added that conversations about Mr. Hagel’s resignation began last month before Democrats suffered blowout losses in the November midterm elections.

For his part, Mr. Hagel, the first combat veteran to serve as defense secretary, seemed to harbor no ill will toward Mr. Obama. He said he will remain on the job until a successor can be confirmed by the Senate.

“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,” Mr. Hagel said, standing alongside Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden. “I am immensely proud of what we have accomplished during this time.”

But Republican critics on Capitol Hill are charging that Mr. Hagel essentially was forced out after disagreements about the administration’s foreign policy, and had become frustrated at what he viewed as attempts to micromanage the Pentagon.

“I know that Chuck was frustrated with aspects of the administration’s national security policy and decision-making process. His predecessors have spoken about the excessive micromanagement they faced from the White House and how that made it more difficult to do their jobs successfully. Chuck’s situation was no different,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and one of the most outspoken critics of Mr. Obama’s foreign policy approach.

“But ultimately, the president needs to realize that the real source of his current failures on national security more often lie with his administration’s misguided policies and the role played by his White House in devising and implementing them,” said Mr. McCain, whom Mr. Obama defeated to win his first presidential term in 2008.

Reporters pressed Mr. Earnest on whether the president forced Mr. Hagel out. But the press secretary wouldn’t directly answer the question, saying only the two men agreed that new leadership was needed.

He also tried to downplay other looming departures.

“I don’t know of any other staff changes that are being contemplated on the national security team or on the domestic policy team, for that matter. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if there are other individuals who decide that somebody else should serve in their role for the last two years of the president’s time in office,” he said.

“This is a natural time for people to announce their decisions to leave,” Mr. Earnest added, referring to the period immediately following an election.

David Sherfinski contributed to this report.

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