The balancing act—between the attraction to power and the compulsion to buck authority—is the leitmotif of Hagel’s four-decade career. In 1968, Hagel, a 21-year-old army sergeant, found himself leading a unit that, contrary to military regulations, included his younger brother Tom. In the span of a month, the two took turns saving each other’s lives. When Chuck was struck by shrapnel in the chest, Tom patched it, stanching a fountain of blood with a bandage. Weeks after that, Chuck pulled his unconscious brother from a burning personnel carrier, later telling a reporter, “I vowed then to do what I could to stop wars.”
A disaffected Tom Hagel, like John Kerry, turned against the war when he returned home and embraced liberal, anti-war politics. Chuck Hagel took John McCain’s change-the-system-from-the-inside path. He became active in Republican politics, and the two brothers sometimes came to blows over their political differences.
Chuck would go on to make a fortune in the cell phone business, before later carving out a unique political niche in the Senate. To no one’s surprise, he was among the first Republicans to call President George W. Bush to account for the series of mistakes that led to the Iraq debacle, and he joined Obama in speaking out against the Iraq troop surge in 2007—which he called the “most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” He spurned his friend McCain a year later during the general election, tacitly supporting Obama’s anti-war candidacy.
Since being appointed to run the Pentagon, Hagel has been cast in a supporting actor role, says Tom Ricks, the Pulitzer Prize winner who wrote the definitive account of the Bush administration’s management failures in Iraq. He regards Hagel as “a soporific version of William Cohen,” Bill Clinton’s low-key second-term defense secretary, “another Senate Armed Services [Committee member] picked by a Dem late in the administration to keep the deck chairs from sloshing over the side. Not a bad guy to have at the end of a presidency.”
That perception isn’t entirely fair. Hagel played a critical role in keeping open ties with the Egyptian military following its overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood and he’s also been the administration’s standard-bearer on its fits-and-starts focus on Asia, making three trips to the region in the first few months he was in office while Kerry focused on the Middle East. In recent days, he’s burned up the phone lines with Japanese leaders in order to avoid any provocation over Beijing’s announcement demanding airspace control over a vast swath of the East China Sea—but he was also supportive of the decision to send a flight of unarmed B-52s to the disputed zone as a show of force. In another small act of self-assertion, he ordered the aircraft carrier U.S.S. George Washington to the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan with only a cursory head’s up to Obama’s national security team, which was debating whether or not to “militarize” the response, according to a defense official.
Hagel has taken on thankless tasks, too, serving as Obama’s human shield on the sensitive issue of the Pentagon’s sexual assault adjudication policy; Hagel has embraced some internal reforms but resisted Senate efforts to remove investigations from the military’s chain of command, a proposal that is anathema to his top commanders but a position that has earned him the ire of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). “He has not shown leadership. … I think he has not lived up to his promises, the promises of having the passion and the drive for rooting out the scourge of sexual violence,” she told me. “I don’t think that he has lived up to my expectations.”
Dealing with these external pressures might actually be easier than the internal challenges. All second-term secretaries are forced to confront a brain drain, but Hagel is finding that replacing outgoing staffers is an especially tall order for a Pentagon bracing for a future of tightening budgets and diminishing influence. The departure of Carter, Hagel’s highly regarded deputy secretary, doesn't come as a surprise given that Carter had been passed over for the top job. But clearly there was friction; he had agitated, with little success, for Hagel to take a more active role in foreign policy, according to people close to both men. When Hagel’s team quietly reached out to Flournoy about her interest—the former Pentagon policy planning chief who left the administration after also being short-listed for the secretary job—she politely declined the offer, according to three people familiar with the situation. Lesser-known Robert Work, a 60-year-old former undersecretary of the Navy, is now considered the top candidate but Hagel was still interviewing other officials as recently as last week, according to administration officials.
Hagel has had similar problems filling the department’s vacated top policy post. Over the past month, Hagel’s team has reportedly gauged the interest of several candidates, including Kurt Campbell, a former top State Department official who co-founded (with Flournoy) the Center for a New American Security. Another prominent think-tanker, Kathleen Hicks of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also took a pass. “To some extent you are seeing the Clinton effect,” says a former defense official who served under President Bill Clinton and recently turned down a Pentagon job offer. “Why take the risks of working in a second Obama administration, when you can make $300,000 in the private sector and then go work for Hillary?”