After just one year and nine months, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is out, and shouldering much of the blame for the president's foreign policy with his "resignation."
But canning Hagel won't help. The problems with President Obama's foreign policy have almost nothing to do with Chuck Hagel. Sources close to Hagel suggest that the Nebraskan realist mostly carried out orders from above, and only differed from the president in more quickly realizing that the Islamic State could constitute a threat to U.S. interests. In that, Hagel was right.
Obama partially owes his election to the difference he drew between himself and George W. Bush's foreign policy. Instead of a status of forces agreement in Iraq, he sought to wash his hands of his predecessor's "distraction," so that he could focus on a surge in Afghanistan.
Six years in, Obama has returned to Iraq's Sunni Triangle, fighting an air war against an amorphous, multistate terror force that gobbles up U.S. materiel, whether it is provided by the corrupt stumblebum Iraqi army or shambolic anti-ISIS fighters. Ground troops are back on the table. Having focused on Afghanistan, Obama has managed to accomplish not much at all. Just as under Bush, the American effort in Afghanistan has meant that there is a U.S.-dependent government in Kabul — and just an hour away the Taliban govern as before, and wait and plot for when the U.S. finally tires and leaves Kabul for them, too.
Obama's longed-for intervention against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad came to nought when the British Parliament refused to join his teensy coalition of the willing. But once the conflict in Syria became a multidimensional civil war with constantly shifting alliances, Obama finally decided to barge in.
It's not just that Obama is dealing with the fallout from Bush's disaster. Persuaded by the ebullient chest-mane of Bernard-Henri Levy and the weakness of the Gadhafi regime in Libya, Obama put American fingerprints on the stateless chaos that followed that regime's downfall. Since then, America has had its ambassador killed, its diplomatic mission has retreated to Malta, and Malta has withdrawn its own diplomats. No one knows which government controls which parts of Libya, and ISIS-affiliated groups are thriving there as well. The instability has also wrecked nearby Mali.
The Obama administration's whole response to the Arab Spring has been confused. Hope for a liberal democratic Egypt, after the U.S. cut loose its subsidized strongman, was replaced by a dysfunctional Muslim Brotherhood government, then a barely functioning return to rule by the military. The Iran nuclear talks have stalled. In a sign of total exasperation, Obama and Secretary John Kerry indulged in a silly bit of allegiance-harming name-calling with Israel.
And it isn't just the Middle East. Russia and the U.S. should have a basis for a productive relationship, if a limited one. Both nations are concerned with Islamist terrorism, often from groups operating in the same region. Both want to see China's rise managed productively and peacefully. But there has been little common ground following Russia's move into eastern Ukraine, which only made the Obama administration's "reset" with Vladimir Putin seem remarkably naive.
Chuck Hagel is simply not responsible for the bulk of this, cut off as he was from most of the real decision making done in the White House.
American re-involvement in Iraq. The rise of the Islamic State between Syria and the Sunni Triangle. A failed state in Libya, and struggling Mali and Egypt. An isolated Kabul and a chuckling Taliban. Sore relations with Russia. Putin in the Ukraine. A deteriorating relationship with Israel. Not to mention the expansion of the drone program, the broken promise of closing Guantánamo, and domestic spying. So far the great foreign policy achievement of this administration is that the Irish are slowly phasing out a corporate tax loophole.
But sure, blame Hagel.