Between Thanksgiving and events in Ferguson, Americans might have missed the rhetorical gymnastics on display after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced his resignation.
The White House and congressional Republicans flipped and flopped, jockeying for partisan cover and gain. Meanwhile, America’s ability to engage on an increasingly complex and chaotic international stage is compromised.
At the White House, President Barack Obama praised Hagel’s service at an awkward press conference. Everyone already knew, thanks to back channels, that Hagel had been fired.
Obama’s experiment with bipartisanship failed. He chose Hagel, a Republican, in part as an attempt to build bridges after the contentious 2012 election. Yet Hagel could not break into the president’s inner circle on foreign affairs. Whether that was his own inability or a White House not interested in divergent views remains disputed. A combination of both seems likely.
Congressional Republicans have been just as malleable. They strenuously opposed Hagel’s nomination two years ago, undermining his ability to lead once he did have the job. They grounded their criticism in discredited accusations. The only attack that appears to have been on target came from Sens. John McCain and John Cornyn who said Hagel was unqualified and “inept.”
Today that attack does not serve the GOP’s agenda. The party rallies around Hagel and criticizes Obama. McCain now insists Hagel was up to the job.
America needs better from its leaders as the administration looks for its fourth Defense secretary in six years. There is too much danger in the world.
The Middle East remains a quagmire from which America appears incapable of extracting itself. We might finally be wrapping up in Afghanistan, but the military’s roles in Iraq and Syria are expanding to combat Islamic State terrorists.
Russian expansionism threatens to boil into open engagements that spill into our allies’ territory, demanding U.S. attention.
Parts of Africa are in turmoil as the Ebola outbreak shatters fragile institutions that had kept some semblance of order.
Closer to home, Obama still has not made good on his pledge to close the Guantánamo Bay detention center. Federal budget cuts will force tough decisions about military spending. And within the military itself, problems with sexual assault still must be addressed.
These challenges will not pause while the next Defense secretary gets up to speed. Obama must choose someone who has the skills and credibility that Hagel lacked.
If the president proves reasonable, the GOP must respond in kind, especially McCain, who will become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015. It will have the first say on the nominee. McCain lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election and has frequently criticized the administration’s foreign policy decisions.
Republicans should respect the president’s historic privilege of having the cabinet he wants. McCain and new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell must ensure that the confirmation process does not devolve into the bitter attacks based on falsehoods that tarnished Hagel and made it all but impossible for him to succeed.