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

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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