Barack Obama with Chuck Hagel. Photo: Getty
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The departure of a third defence secretary finally kills off Obama’s hopes of a “team of rivals”

Chuck Hagel's resignation - the latest soap opera to hit the Obama adminstration - is a sign of severe dysfunction. The team of rivals has disintegrated, with many of them becoming a thorn in the president’s side as he limps on for a final two years.

November was a tough month for Barack Obama. It began with a huge defeat for the Democrats in the midterm elections, in which the Republicans won control of the Senate. It ended with more criticism being heaped upon his management of US foreign policy, after the secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel, announced his resignation. The usual cycle of leaks and counter-leaks seemed to confirm that it was not a mutual parting of the ways: Hagel had been pushed and the relationship between the White House and the Pentagon had hit a new low on a range of issues, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Russia.

Much like leading the Home Office in the UK, being the US secretary of defence is one of the toughest jobs to hold on to in Washington, DC. Charles A Stevenson, the author of the 2006 book SecDef: the Nearly Impossible Job of Secretary of Defence, recently noted that 23 individuals have held the position since it was created in 1947. If one includes Hagel’s departure, nine of them have been fired or forced to resign. By contrast, since 1789, only two secretaries of state have succumbed to the same fate.

Hagel is Obama’s third secretary of defence to go in six years, following Robert Gates and Leon Panetta. All of them have purportedly “retired” but that hides the real story. Gates, who survived from the Bush years, broke rank when he published his memoirs shortly after he left office. In Duty, he complained that the Obama White House was more centralised and controlling on national security than any since the days of Nixon. A few close advisers – some of them with minimal experience – held too much sway and they were more concerned with polling figures and partisan politics than long-term strategy. Gates’s replacement, the former CIA director Panetta, appointed in April 2011, did not last two years. He was even more forthright in his own memoirs, Worthy Fights, which bemoaned how the president “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader” and sometimes “avoids the battle, complains, and misses opportunities”.

The odds are that Hagel will follow suit and offer some choice words of his own. Back in October, a memo that he wrote to the national security adviser, Susan Rice, was leaked to the press (presumably by someone in his office). In it, he criticised US Syria policy for its lack of overall coherence. Counterclaims have since been made, suggesting that Hagel was getting his revenge in early – grandstanding with a view to posterity – because of an anticipated “shake-up” of the national security team. Rice was untouchable, as was Obama’s influential chief of staff, Denis McDonough. Despite tensions with the president over Syria’s chemical weapons and the collapsed Israel-Palestine peace process, the secretary of state, John Kerry, was too entwined in negotiations with Iran to be pulled out.

What was intended to act as an attempt to “reboot” the administration’s foreign policy is now an unseemly mess. The front-runner to replace Hagel, the former undersecretary of defence Michèle A Flournoy, swiftly ruled herself out. Some believe that Flournoy is keeping her powder dry for a position in a potential Hillary Clinton administration – and is unwilling to take up the poisoned chalice for what will be a very difficult two years. Earlier this year, Flournoy voiced some veiled and carefully worded criticism of the overall direction of strategy, just as Clinton has done – not outright rebellion but enough to set herself apart from Obama.

It was supposed to be different. During his race for the Democratic nomination against Clinton in 2008, it was widely publicised that Obama was much enamoured with a book by the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. In particular, Obama was impressed by Lincoln’s ability to bring former opponents into his team. This seemed particularly important in foreign affairs, which had been the subject of such bitter dispute under George W Bush. In came Clinton as secretary of state. Obama’s appointments of Bob Gates and Chuck Hagel were also symbolic. Both fitted a certain mould. They were Republicans who had served in Republican administrations but who were known to be critical of the excesses of the Bush administration – particularly the war in Iraq – and spoke to Obama’s purportedly “realist” credentials in foreign affairs.

If the idea was to create a broader, bipartisan basis of support, it failed. Regarded as something of a renegade, Hagel found his nomination a bruising process; as a result of Republican filibustering, his approval only just crept through the Senate. Gates and Hagel came to feel that they were there for window-dressing and that all major decisions were taken in Obama’s tight-knit kitchen cabinet. On a trip to Afghanistan during Obama’s first term, Gates reportedly erupted in rage when he discovered a direct telephone line between the military’s special operations headquarters and a top national security official in the White House, in effect cutting out the Pentagon.

In truth, Obama inherited many of his foreign policy headaches from his predecessor. One area of contention between the president and Hagel is reported to have been the latter’s foot-dragging over the closure of Guantanamo Bay, which remains open. What is beyond question is that the latest soap opera is a sign of severe dysfunction. The team of rivals has disintegrated, with many of them becoming a thorn in the president’s side as he limps on for a final two years.

Ed Miliband’s team – reportedly engrossed by Goodwin’s latest book, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt – might take note of the limits of historical analogy. 

John Bew is an NS contributing writer

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Deep trouble

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Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.