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Hagel Steps Down After Discord On Syria, Iraq


Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is stepping down. President Obama made the announcement in an East Room appearance minutes ago.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Now, last month, Chuck came to me to discuss the final quarter of my presidency and determined that having guided the department through this transition, it was an appropriate time for him to complete his service.

MONTAGNE: In fact, when Secretary Hagel joined the cabinet less than two years ago, it was a different time. The White House was focused on shrinking the military and its commitment to war. Then came the rise of ISIS, the downward spiral in Iraq and the Ebola crisis in Africa. For more, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson joins us. Welcome.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Glad to be here.

MONTAGNE: Well, get down to why Hagel is resigning right at this moment?

LIASSON: Well, the president had conversations with Hagel in October about the final quarter of his presidency, and he essentially asked Hagel to step down. I think the biggest reason was that the mission has changed. When Chuck Hagel came in, his focus was on drawing down troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, shrinking the Pentagon, dealing with the sequester budget cuts. But now the world has changed. We're recommitting troops to Iraq to fight ISIS. In Afghanistan, we're going to be leaving some more troops behind. And the White House decided they needed a strategic thinker. And they've really struggled to stay one step ahead of all of these crises - Ebola, Ukraine, even conflicts in Asia. And I think the thinking was that they needed somebody else to run the Defense Department, more of a strategic thinker, in the remaining months of the president's term.

MONTAGNE: And beyond that, were there problems with Hagel?

LIASSON: Well, Chuck Hagel did occasionally seem not be on the same page as the White House. He famously said that ISIS was beyond anything we'd seen before. He was kind of out in front on that. He clashed with the national security advisor, Susan Rice, on Syria. And he never really made it into that very small insular inner circle at the White House.

MONTAGNE: Is there - which would be other people at cabinet level, basically?

LIASSON: Yes, other people - yes.

MONTAGNE: Is there any sense of who might succeed Chuck Hagel?

LIASSON: Well, there are a couple names floating out there. There's Michele Flournoy, she's a former under secretary of defense for policy. And of course she would be the first woman, that would be something the president would like to do. There's also the former defense - Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. And there are a couple of names out there. The president said that Chuck Hagel has agreed to stay on until his successor is confirmed.

MONTAGNE: And how hard will that confirmation be now that the Republicans control the Senate?

LIASSON: Well, that is a really good question. You have John McCain, who's the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. He has a lot of opinions about the administration's foreign-policy, and he has a lot of criticisms of it. And he's going to have a huge voice in whoever is the next defense secretary. And you can be sure that whoever it is is going to meet his approval because, as you remember, Chuck Hagel had a very difficult confirmation process even when Democrats controlled the Senate. I think he only got four Republican votes. And don't forget, he was a former Republican senator, one of President Obama's former friends in the Senate. And they're going to want to make sure that whoever they nominate can get through the new Republican-controlled Senate.

MONTAGNE: Mara, thanks very much.

LIASSON: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson on the resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.