Chuck Hagel was a Barack Obama mentor, which made him part of the US president’s inner circle. But when the defense secretary drifted, he had to leave. And so it goes in Barack Obama’s war cabinet.
When Obama announced Hagel’s departure on Monday, it added fuel to a debate among lawmakers and insiders about what many see as a White House — and a president — that lacks trust in the national security apparatus.
In the wake of a scandal involving then-CIA Director David Petraeus and his mistress, Obama sent an inner circle stalwart, then-National Security Adviser John Brennan, to replace him. When Obama needed a trusted treasury secretary to follow Tim Geithner, he turned to his then-chief of staff, Jack Lew.
Even Hagel, who schooled then-Sen. Obama on national security and foreign policy matters during a 2008 trip to war-torn Iraq, was deployed to the Pentagon as Obama’s hand-picked reformer.
But it was a lesser-noticed move — the Nov. 7 nomination of Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken to be deputy secretary of state — that got the attention of lawmakers and experts. The post is typically held by a career diplomat.
“They have this need to control every message that gets out,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., a former House Foreign Affairs Committee chairwoman. “And to appoint somebody who’s more political than a diplomat, it just means you want more control over the message you’re sending out.”
Incoming Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in a Monday statement about Hagel’s resignation, referenced other former national security officials’ descriptions of a controlling White House.
Ros-Lehtinen said she agrees with the characterization of a White House that micromanages the national security agencies.
“They want every statement … to be cleared,” she said. “And they want someone that they can trust.”