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Despite rumors of Chuck Hagel’s strategic rift with the White House, his abrupt announced departure this week took many in Washington by surprise. Why push out a loyal Secretary of Defense in the heat of a conflict with ISIS, the withdrawal of US forces in Afghanistan, continued Russian provocations in Eastern Europe and Ukraine, and domestic political fights about our national security and the defense budget?

The recent midterm election no doubt played a role in President Obama’s thinking. While the shellacking that President Obama and the Democratic Party took was not a direct result of his foreign policy, there is no doubt that Obama’s perceived lack of a clear strategic approach to the problems in the Middle East and Ukraine played a part. Faced with

Despite rumours of Chuck Hagel's strategic rift with the White House, his abrupt announced departure this week took many in Washington by surprise. Why push out a loyal secretary of defence in the heat of a conflict with ISIL, the withdrawal of US forces in Afghanistan, continued Russian provocations in Eastern Europe and Ukraine, and domestic political fights about our national security and the defence budget?

The recent midterm election no doubt played a role in US President Barack Obama's thinking. While the shellacking that Obama and the Democratic Party took was not a direct result of his foreign policy, there is no doubt that Obama's perceived lack of a clear strategic approach to the problems in the Middle East and Ukraine played a part. Faced with a US public deeply wary of further US military engagement abroad, a soon-to-be actively hostile Republican-controlled Senate, and a complex set of interlocking crises in the Middle East, Obama felt that he needed to shake things up by removing a high-profile person from his national security team, regardless of whether that person bore any responsibility for the challenges facing Obama.

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Hagel was an obvious choice to take the fall. Although a member of the opposition Republican Party, Hagel does not have many supporters among Republican leaders because of his earlier sharp criticism of President George W Bush's conduct of the Iraq war.

In fact, only four Republicans in the Senate voted to confirm Hagel as secretary of defence in 2013, after a bruising confirmation hearing that weakened Hagel's standing out of the gate. Perhaps most critically, Hagel never bonded with Obama's closely knit national security team.

Creating problems

But in trying to solve one problem, Obama has created several others.

First, he has to find a suitable secretary of defence to replace Hagel. Hagel has done everything the president wanted him to do as secretary of defence. He has kept a lid on the Pentagon's budget, carried out Obama's pivot to Asia strategy, ended the combat mission in Afghanistan, began fixing the broken nuclear weapons complex and reforming the Pentagon's management, and dealt forcefully with the scourge of sexual violence in the military.

Will Obama be able to find someone as loyal and competent as Hagel for the next secretary of defence? Will Obama be able to find someone willing to go through a grueling confirmation process to serve for less than two years, with limited opportunity to leave their own imprint on US national security strategy?

Will Obama be able to find someone as loyal and competent as Hagel for the next secretary of defence? Will Obama be able to find someone willing to go through a grueling confirmation process to serve for less than two years, with limited opportunity to leave their own imprint on US national security strategy?

Second, administration officials have justified Hagel's departure by saying Obama needed "fresh leadership" and "a different set of skills" in the Pentagon. But without shaking up either the national security staff in the White House or the centralised and risk-averse way the Obama administration makes national security policy, there is little chance of a new secretary having a big impact.

For example, when weighing the planned drawdown of US forces in Afghanistan and the military's request to keep 10,500 troops in the country after December 2014, the National Security Council held 20 meetings, including two with the president and six involving the secretary of defence. After all these meetings, the number was pared to 9,800.

Facts on the ground

Finally, Obama has increased the pressure on himself to shake up not only his personnel, but his strategy. However, Hagel's departure does not change the facts on the ground, and a new Secretary of Defence is unlikely to prompt radical changes in Obama's foreign policy.

In the Middle East, Obama may accelerate the arming and training of the Syrian opposition or deploy a handful of US ground forces in Iraq to coordinate close air support of Iraqi forces and better targeting of air strikes against ISIL, but he will not commit US troops in significant numbers or begin bombing Assad directly.

Managing the current anti-ISIL coalition will continue to be a delicate art, and improving Iraq's security will be a slow process, dependent on actions of the Iraqi government. In Europe, Obama will continue to work closely with NATO to deter further Russian aggression, including a rotational presence of rapid response forces in the Baltics, and push to maintain and increase sanctions on President Vladimir Putin's inner circle. Obama is unlikely to provide lethal arms to the Ukrainian government or open the door to Ukrainian NATO membership. In Afghanistan, the US withdrawal of troops will continue as planned.

Obama's foreign policy modus operandi to date has been one of slow and careful steps, rather than going all-in on big bets. Don't expect this to change with a new secretary of defence. Hagel's abrupt departure is for political, rather than strategic reasons.

Lawrence J Korb is a Senior Fellow at American Progress and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower, Reserve Affairs, Installations, and Logistics.

Source: Al Jazeera