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Hagel Didn't Deserve to Be Treated This Way

Hagel Didn't Deserve to Be Treated This Way

By Mark Salter - November 26, 2014

No sooner had President Obama clenched soon-to-be-former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in a farewell embrace, when assorted White House aides went to work -- anonymously, of course -- denigrating not only Hagel’s performance in office but the personal attributes of the man their boss had just called “exemplary.”

It seems that Hagel is too meek, mumbling and mild-mannered for the rough world we live in or to gain the respect of those manly Terminators of the West Wing, the squeaking mice on whom every press report of administration intrigue relies. Depicted variously by said mice as unassertive in meetings, inarticulate, low energy, a poor public advocate for the president’s policies, it’s no wonder Hagel “just wasn’t the man for the job,” as one “senior administration official” lamented.

Strange that these deficiencies in Hagel’s personality came as such a surprise to the president and his minions. You would think Obama would have noticed earlier if Hagel were so debilitatingly timid and tongue-tied. After all, he was selected for the job, at least in part, because of the close friendship he had supposedly formed with Obama while both men served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and were quite vigorously asserting themselves as eloquent critics of Bush administration policies.

Ah, the sudden afflictions that can seize a public official when they become their patron’s irritant or inconvenience or scapegoat.

Though I’m sure I lacked the president’s insights into the man, I thought Hagel was the wrong candidate for the job when he was nominated. My concerns were not about his assertiveness, however. They were about his national security views, similar as they were to Obama’s, and which, as far as I could tell, he asserted regularly and forcibly. I knew him slightly when I was an aide to another Hagel friend, Sen John McCain. I disagreed with him, but I liked him.

Hagel might have expected his departure would be explained with the minimal courtesy with which Washington typically ushers public officials off the stage -- they want to spend more time with family or, having achieving notable success, it’s time for new challenges, that sort of thing. But rather than stick to such polite fictions, the mice treated him to the kind of disdain they usually reserve for their critics, not their colleagues.

As galling as that might be to Hagel and his supporters, they can consider the sources and take comfort in the knowledge that they deserve less respect than they accorded you. Despite not knowing their names, it’s safe to assume that many are almost certainly 20-somethings who went from writing hyperbolic campaign press releases and clever sound bites to issuing anonymous insults and composing sophomoric tweets.

What was Hagel doing when he was their age? He was being decorated for conspicuous bravery in combat while serving as an infantryman in Vietnam and building a successful company and making a reputation based on his accomplishments rather than the successes of a gifted patron.

Some of Hagel’s White House antagonists might be more senior, but their insecurity and immaturity (how often those two attributes accompany each other) match those of the lowliest White House intern.

Winston Churchill may have said, “When you have to kill a man, it costs nothing to be polite,” but the mice don’t operate that way. Their operational principle, if one can call it a principle at all, is to protect the president and his perceived legacy. In their view, Chuck Hagel’s reputation was expendable in furtherance of this aim.

Actually, what they were really protecting in their disrespect for Hagel was their boss’ preening self-regard, a trait they share and one that has been indulged far too often in this administration -- at the expense of the nation’s interests and the reputations of others.

As of today, the administration’s national security legacy hardly does them credit. In most regions of the world, our concerns are more ignored and our interests more threatened than they were before Obama took office. It’s an open secret not only in Washington but in every world capital that national security policy is run out of the White House by people far less experienced and capable than those who should be running it at the Department of State and the Department of Defense. Two previous administration Pentagon chiefs went public with that complaint, as did former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

It would be one thing if there were Henry Kissinger types at the White House running things. Alas, those who are in charge, including the president and his mice, have produced a level of incompetence and dysfunction not seen since the hapless Carter administration. They have authored numerous inane policies such as asking the Free Syrian Army to fight ISIS for us while we leave it defenseless against Bashar al-Assad’s barrel bombs.

It’s a pity their many failures have yet to produce an appropriate measure of humility at the White House. Had that happened, we might be in less trouble in the world than we are and Hagel might have received the courtesy due him for his faithful public service. Whatever his failings, Chuck Hagel risked his life for the rest of us, and he served us in office as well as he could. It’s shameful that the man who appointed him to the office has so little gratitude that he allows his aides to insult his “friend” as Hagel takes his leave of this failed administration. 

Mark Salter is the former chief of staff to Sen. John McCain and was a senior adviser to the McCain for President campaign.

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