Chuck Hagel, the beleaguered Secretary of Defense, announced he will step down less then two years after taking office and at the height of the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State terrorist group.
President Barack Obama announced the departure in the State Dining Room Monday morning. Hagel and Vice President Joe Biden stood beside him.
“Over nearly 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 ISIL and Ebola,” Obama said. “Thanks to Chuck, our military is on a firmer footing engaged in these missions and looking ahead to the future.”
Obama said Hagel came to see him and “determined that having guided the department through this transition, it was an appropriate time for him to complete his service.”
Hagel submit his resignation Monday.
“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,” Hagel said.
It was unclear who would replace the 68-year-old Vietnam veteran and former Republican senator from Nebraska, as no replacement would be named during the ceremony.
But within the Pentagon the leading names were Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, former Undersecretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy, who would become the first female Defense secretary and Ash Carter, former Secretary of Defense. Hagel will remain at his current post until a successor is named.
While Hagel and Obama reached a decision last week, much of the Pentagon was stunned Monday upon learning the news, at the same time as the American public. What led to Hagel’s dramatic departure was unclear as both Hagel supporters and the White House scurried Monday morning to offer an explanation. The White House said there were policy differences. Hagel’s supporters suggested he no longer wanted to work for a neophyte national security team.
Either way, Hagel’s tenure was marked with tension from almost the moment he was named to replace former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. His confirmation hearing was dominated by snafus that left some wondering whether his former colleagues would confirm him.
Officials had said they hoped Hagel’s congressional background would help the administration fend off talk of sequestration and at the same time manage a building winding down from two wars. But the consensous around Washington was that he failed to do either.
And as the United States ramped up its campaign against the Islamic State, Hagel repeatedly fretted the U.S. approach bolstered Syrian President Bashar al Assad, who Obama had said must go.
The totality led to rampant talks in the last month that Hagel would be out of office after the midterm elections, talk that only intensified when the secretary cancelled a long-scheduled trip to Vietnam.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio said the personnel change “must be part of a larger re-thinking of our strategy to confront the threats we face abroad, especially the threat posed by the rise of ISIL” or the Islamic State.
Hagel last talked about rumors of his depature to Charlie Rose Thursday, saying: “I don’t wake up in the morning and worry about my job.”
Hagel’s successor will become Obama’s fourth secretary of defense.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. said he hopes Obama will nominate a secretary of defense with the “strength of character, judgment and independence” of previous secretaries Bob Gates, Leon Panetta and Hagel.
“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,” he said. “That is the real change we need right now.”