From the moment word leaked that Chuck Hagel had been fired, the spinning began in earnest.
Those ubiquitous senior administration officials wanted it clear that the president had chosen to oust his Defense secretary, thus giving him credit for a post-midterm shakeup and a new aggressiveness in the war on terror. That’s how Washington works: the president has full confidence in his Cabinet members until he, uh, doesn’t.
And if Hagel’s reputation gets scuffed up in the process, well, politics ain’t beanbag. I do wonder, though, why journalists let unnamed sources more or less trash a guy on his way out from behind a curtain of anonymity.
In fact, there were dueling leaks, with a separate set of anonymous voices from the Pentagon, even though the White House has the bigger megaphone.
The only amazing thing, in retrospect, is that the tremors from Hagel’s planned firing weren’t picked up earlier, well before the New York Times disclosed his dismissal yesterday morning.
Here’s the dominant spin in a nutshell, from an MSNBC story: “The White House reportedly lost confidence in Hagel less than two years after his nomination. ‘He himself was uncomfortable with the position,’ said NBC News’s Jim Miklaszewski.”
It’s true that the former Republican senator from Nebraska never seemed like the right fit. He simply wasn’t much of a spokesman on military policy, even when the threat of ISIS was dominating the news. Why have a Pentagon chief who fades into the woodwork?
The more generous spin, which the White House spread like icing across the baked cake of Hagel’s departure, is that the mission had changed. Thus, the New York Times:
“The officials characterized the decision as a recognition that the threat from the militant group Islamic State will require different skills from those that Mr. Hagel, who often struggled to articulate a clear viewpoint and was widely viewed as a passive defense secretary, was brought in to employ.
“Mr. Hagel, a combat veteran who was skaeptical about the Iraq war, came in to manage the Afghanistan combat withdrawal and the shrinking Pentagon budget in the era of budget sequestrations.”
Okay, that’s true. But a Pentagon chief needs to be able manage military operations at any time, as the renewed American involvement in not just Iraq but Syria makes clear.