Barack Obama faces a knot of simultaneous foreign-policy crises on a scale rarely confronted by recent presidents—a Middle East riven by civil war, nuclear ambition, and general upheaval; Russia at war with a neighbor and challenging the post-World War II institutional architecture; a confident China pushing against the US Navy.
And, at home, a political opposition buoyant after delivering an election drubbing, and determined to undermine the administration’s every policy goal.
Against that backdrop, it’s easy to see why the White House would turn to a time-tested political strategy: throw a man overboard. And in Obama’s national-security team, Chuch Hagel was always the likeliest sacrificial offering.
National security adviser Susan Rice and UN ambassador Samantha Power are pillars of Obama’s inner circle—jettisoning one of them was almost as unlikely as suggestions that Obama fire Valerie Jarrett, his closest adviser. Denis McDonough, Obama’s chief of staff, seems to have a job as long as he wants it.
Secretary of state John Kerry may not be an White House insider, but he’s worked tirelessly (and very publicly) on the thorniest foreign-policy issues, especially this week over the Iranian nuclear negotiations.
Defense secretary Hagel, on the other hand, was neither an Obama confidant not a high-profile public figure. He was competent enough—Hagel called the rise of the Islamic State correctly—but loved by no one, including within his own Republican Party.
In other words, the perfect fall guy.