Hagel’s sacking doesn’t end the debate over wars

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens as President Barack Obama talks about Hagel’s resignation at the White House on Monday.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel listens as President Barack Obama talks about Hagel’s resignation at the White House on Monday. The Associated Press

The instant analysis of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s forced departure Monday is that he is no longer the right man for the job as America returns to more of a war footing in the Middle East.

That’s certainly not what a war-weary American public wants to hear.

Hagel, a former U.S. senator from Nebraska and Vietnam War veteran, was the only Republican in the president’s cabinet and had been in the post for less than two years. A skeptic of the Iraq War like President Barack Obama, he was brought in to manage the downsizing of the military and the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Except, it turns out, the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan isn’t ending as soon as Obama told us.

The president announced in May that the combat mission will be over by the end of this year and that all U.S. troops will leave by the end of 2016. That would be 15 years after the war started to root out al-Qaida and its Taliban allies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

But under pressure from U.S. commanders, Obama has authorized a broader mission in 2015, including direct combat and airstrikes against the Taliban and others threatening U.S. troops or the new Afghan government, The New York Times reported late last week.

At the same time, Obama has sent 3,000 U.S. troops back into Iraq as the White House tries to come up with an effective strategy to fight the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria.

The administration is also dealing with Russian aggression in Ukraine and negotiating a nuclear weapons deal with Iran. As crises around the world seem to be worsening, critics of Obama’s national security team are getting louder.

As often happens in Washington, D.C., that’s when the knives come out. Hagel, never a part of the president’s inner circle, made for an easy target – widely viewed as too passive and not presenting a clear view.

One time he was vocal, and he got in hot water for appearing to contradict Obama. In January, the president likened the Islamic State to a junior varsity team. But in August, Hagel issued dire warnings that the Islamic State was “beyond anything we have seen,” with its ideology, financing and military tactics.

Obama will nominate Hagel’s replacement, but the new Republican majority in the U.S. Senate has confirmation power, so will have a lot of influence.

The president may have jettisoned someone who wasn’t quite with the program. But he hasn’t resolved the conflict within his national security team – and maybe in own mind – about how to keep his promise to end our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and still confront the threat of Islamic militants in the region.