WASHINGTON – When Barack Obama looks in the mirror these days, he must see a terrifying visage staring back at him: that of George W. Bush.
In a cruel echo of history, Obama is morphing into the president whose foreign policy he campaigned to overturn. Obama on Monday morning sacked his Pentagon secretary, Chuck Hagel, after huge midterm election losses in the sixth year of his presidency, just as Bush did in sacking Donald Rumsfeld after midterm losses in the sixth year of his presidency.
As with Bush, the ouster comes as a war in the Middle East is going badly – then, the Iraq war, now, the bombing of the Islamic State terror group. Rumsfeld’s ouster led to the surge in Iraq, and Hagel’s departure comes amid signs of an expanded role for U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria. And, as under Bush, this guarantees that Obama will leave his successor an ongoing U.S. war in the Mideast, quite possibly the sort of ground war Obama vowed to undo.
The neocons who dominated the Bush administration feel some vindication watching Obama struggle to avoid repeating history. Dov Zakheim, a Bush-era Pentagon official, said Hagel was offered up as a “sacrificial lamb” by a White House trying to stall further escalation in Syria and Iraq. But “I just don’t think they have that luxury” of avoiding an expanded U.S. role, he said. “They'll agonize as long as they possibly can, but the clock is ticking a lot faster than they anticipated.”
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White House officials insisted Hagel and Obama “arrived together” at the decision for Hagel to leave, but the stagecraft suggested it wasn’t voluntary – a hastily arranged event in the State Dining Room with just 20 people seated in two rows (a smattering of top White House officials, Cabinet officers and military types) providing exaggerated applause after Obama offered effusive praise of the man he was dismissing with no successor named.
Hagel’s departure speech, pulled from his left breast pocket, said everything you need to know about why Obama agreed with Hagel that “it was an appropriate time for him to complete his service.” Hagel thanked the president and the vice president, his colleagues and the generals, the troops, Congress, his foreign counterparts and his family. But he made not a single mention of the war against the Islamic State.
Hagel listed his accomplishments – the pullout from Afghanistan, strengthened alliances, reforms within the Pentagon – but said nothing about the renewal of war in the region that has bedeviled the U.S. for decades.
And that almost certainly is the real reason behind Hagel’s departure. The Republican former senator, a decorated veteran and the first enlisted man to hold the top job at the Pentagon, was brought in to help Obama wind down wars and shrink the Pentagon. His strong ties to the military and his reluctance to use force (he had opposed the Iraq surge) made him an ideal man for the job, and his battle wounds from Vietnam gave him the moral authority to answer the chicken hawks who opposed the contraction of the military.
But now Islamic militants have taken over much of Iraq and Syria, and even Jimmy Carter has said the Obama administration was too slow in responding. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has begun to float the idea of ground troops. Even recovering isolationist Rand Paul has called for a declaration of war. Obama, whether he likes it or not, is going to need a Pentagon chief to oversee this war he doesn’t want to fight.
Obama went on at great length about the “class and integrity” of the “great friend” he was pushing out the door, praising Hagel for everything from drawing down U.S. forces in Afghanistan to working to reduce sexual assaults.
Only in passing did Obama mention the war that threatens to dominate the last two years of his presidency. He said Hagel “helped build the international coalition” to fight the Islamic State and praised Hagel for his work on reshaping the military to “meet long-term threats while still responding to immediate challenges.”
Hagel, a man of peace, can now at least enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday, knowing he'll be free of this new war once the Senate confirms a successor – no doubt after many I-told-you-so’s from Republican hawks about the Islamic State.
For Hagel’s boss, being dragged into expanding just the sort of war he was elected to end, there is no such relief.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.