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Hagel Struggled To Stay On The Same Page As The White House


President Obama has accepted the resignation of defense secretary Chuck Hagel. It the first cabinet-level shakeup since the midterm elections, which were a sweeping defeat for Democrats and although the White House insists the decision was mutual, others say Hagel had not planned on leaving this early. He'll stay on until his successor is confirmed.

NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson begins our coverage.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Administration officials say there was no single problem with Hagel, but he was often not on the same page with the White House as the president struggled to stay a step ahead of new crisis in Syria, Iraq, Ukraine and West Africa. He famously got out in front of the White House talking points on ISIS when he described that Islamic terrorist group as quote, "beyond anything that we've seen." Today the president made it clear he had not asked Hagel to stay on.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Last month Chuck came to me to discuss the final quarter of my presidency and determined that having guided the department through this transition it was an appropriate time for him to complete his service.

LIASSON: Chuck Hagel is a Republican and a friend of the president's from their days together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee where they were both opponents of the Iraq war. He was brought into downsize the Pentagon and to manage the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, but now the mission is changing and new strategies are needed to combat a series of fresh challenges.

Today President Obama praised Hagel, saying that as the first unlisted combat veteran to serve as defense secretary Hagel has a unique rapport with the men and women in the armed forces.


OBAMA: He sees himself in them and they see themselves in him and their safety, their lives have always been at the center of Chuck's service. When I asked Chuck to serve as secretary of defense, we were entering a significant period of transition - the drawdown in Afghanistan, the need to prepare our forces for future missions and tough fiscal choices to keep our military strong and ready.

LIASSON: Now as the White House considers ways to combat new threats like ISIS, it may be time for the president to choose a more strategic thinker as defense secretary, but Brookings analyst Michael O'Hanlon says that's not enough.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: It's going to require more than strategic thought. It's going to require support from the White House to do more than we've been able to do so far.

LIASSON: Even though the president has been slowly making the U.S. response to the Islamic State terrorist group more assertive, O'Hanlon says a lot of the possible new strategies are ones that have already been suggested.

O'HANLON: We can't expect the new secretary, if that person wants to, let's say, have a no-fly zone in a part of northern Syria, or to expand dramatically the arming and training of the Syrian opposition, or to signal to partners in the region that we really are interested in pushing Assad aside, these kinds of ideas have been in the mix in the policy debate for several years and it's the White House that's prevented them from being adopted.

LIASSON: But a new defense secretary could provide an opportunity if the president wants to rethink his policy toward any number of foreign problems. Still, whoever the president nominates to succeed Chuck Hagel will have to win confirmation in the new Republican Senate and the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee is administration critic John McCain. He will have a lot to say about who that person is.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.
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