Groups: Hagel Offered Troops a Voice but Missed Chances to Fix Budget

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivers remarks to attendees of the Veterans of Foreign War National Convention., July 22, 2013. (Glenn Fawcett/Department of Defense)
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel delivers remarks to attendees of the Veterans of Foreign War National Convention., July 22, 2013. (Glenn Fawcett/Department of Defense)

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's unexpected resignation on Monday drew words of consternation and praises from veterans groups and even from lawmakers who two years ago took the shots at him during his confirmation hearing.

Hagel resigned amid reports of his "frustration" with the administration on the strategy for Iraq and Syria, though some media reports quoting unnamed White House sources said President Obama had lost confidence in Hagel's execution of the campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

"We were caught as flatfooted as everyone else," said Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America, a group born out of the war Hagel fought as a sergeant 46 years ago. "Chuck Hagel is an extraordinarily decent man and he has rendered extraordinary service."

One of his troop- and veteran-oriented moves will be made shortly, before he leaves, Weidman said.

"Before he leaves he's going to be signing an order ... opening up the bases to veterans' service organizations and military service organizations," Weidman said. This will permit group members to meet with hospitalized troops and with those close to separating in order to assist them with whatever needs they have.

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Retired Vice Adm. Norb Ryan, president of Military Officers Association of America, praised Hagel for unwavering commitment and compassion for service members, their families and veterans.

"I have the highest regard for Secretary Hagel," Ryan said. "The secretary really gets it. He knows the challenges faced by our troops and their families and truly understands their concerns."

Ryan said Hagel met regularly with the veterans groups – as much as six times in the last 20 months.

Weidman said that kind of contact was unprecedented, with past secretaries limiting such contact to an annual photo op at the Pentagon around Memorial Day.

"Then we'd get blown off. It was very different under Hagel ...  Was he perfect? No. But it's hard to judge from where we sit."

Some veterans groups offered a lowkey response to Hagel's departure. 

Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander John Stroud said the group "salute[s] his service, his sacrifice, and his personal commitment to keeping America safe, as well as the close, unprecedented working relationship he built between the Pentagon and the VFW. His leadership and his presence will be missed."

Verna Jones, executive director of The American Legion in Washington, DC, said Hagel had always been a true friend to the group.

"We appreciate his tremendous leadership at the Pentagon during a time of tough transition," Jones said in a statement. "The Legion wishes Secretary Hagel Godspeed in his next endeavor, and we look forward to working with his successor to ensuring a strong national defense."

Some the strongest words of praise for Hagel came from Sens. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, lawmakers who hit him hard during his confirmation in early 2013.

McCain pressed Hagel repeatedly to accept that the "surge" of U.S. forces in Iraq  in 2007 – which Hagel had criticized – was a good move and successful. McCain demanded a yes or no answer. Hagel refused to provide the simple answer but also was not able to give McCain an answer he would accept.

Graham suggested that Hagel was anti-Israel, and that "the Jewish lobby" in American intimidated Congess and made them do "dumb things."

Hagel refused to name a single senator who was intimidated by the Isreali lobby, and said he could not think of anything "dumb" Congress had done in order to accommodate the lobby. He also apologized for using the phrase "Jewish lobby" instead of "Israel lobby."

Hagel's performance was widely seen as weak and defensive throughout.

But with his resignation to the White House both McCain and Graham praised Hagel for his patriotism and dedication to service members and said problems with the Defense Department rest with Obama, not the secretary.

The lawmakers also said out that on the matter of ISIS Hagel's position regarding the U.S. role in the region more lined up with their own than with the President's.

"I know that Chuck was frustrated with aspects of the administration's national security policy and decision-making process," McCain said, noting that former Defense Secetaries Leon Panetta and Robert Gates both criticized the Obama White House's micromanagement of combat operations.

Graham said responsibility for the loss of large swathes of Iraq and Syria to ISIS forces does not rest with Hagel.

"Whether it was leaving a residual force behind in Iraq or assisting the Free Syrian Army at a time when it would have been most beneficial, our failing strategies in Iraq and Syria are President Obama's fault," Graham said.

Whatever Hagel's actions on personnel. or his views on how to deal with ISIS, he did little or nothing to fix chronic budgetary problems at the Pentagon, according to longtime Defense watchers Franklin "Chuck" Spinney, a retired analyst with DoD program analysis and evaluation, and Winslow Wheeler, a longtime Senate staffer who now directs the Straus Military Reform Project for the Project on Government Oversight.

"It's not at all surprising and it's not disappointing" that Hagel is out, Wheeler said. "He didn't do anyting. We knew he wouldn't do anything from the get-go, given his performance at his confirmation hearing."

Wheeler, who wrote at the time that Hagel's question and answer session with the Senate Armed Services Committee was disappointing, said he "was an empty shell [then] and nothing he has done since then shows him to be any more than that now."

"He refused to stand up to bullying [at his confirmation hearing]," Wheeler said. "He showed a complete lack of spine. I don't know if it was a question of intellect, also, but he was a cipher as secretary of defense."

Spinney said Hagel did nothing to reign in Pentagon spending, last year presenting a Strategic Choices and Management Review and a Quadrennial Defense Review using projections that had no basis in reality.

"He never came up with a plan to cut the budget," Spinney said. "My guess is he couldn't come up with a way to do it."

At a time when the Pentagon is supposed to be looking at mandated sequester cuts, Hagel is working with a military claiming to need nuclear modernization, a new bomber, missile and submarine, new Army vehicles, replacements for the Aegis cruisers and more.

"Hagel didn't do a thing," Spinney said.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at

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