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I Went Halfway Around the World with Chuck Hagel—and All I Learned Was That He Was Doomed

Last August, I flew halfway around the world with Chuck Hagel to try to see what made him tick, and why he’d been chosen as Secretary of Defense at such an unsettled, seemingly crucial period for our national security. I watched Hagel in bilateral meetings with Southeast Asian ministers of defense, and I watched him take questions from American marines in Hawaii. I saw him in a bathing suit (he’s an avid morning lap-swimmer), and I saw him in a business suit, and I saw him in leisurewear on the interminable flights across the Pacific. I interviewed him twice, generating nearly 10,000 words of transcripts. And after all of that, the impression I got of him, as a person or as a leader, might be summarized as “smudgey.” Looking back on it, there was a pall of futility, maybe even mismatch, that hung over those two weeks, as Hagel, the stage to himself, failed to project any kind of personal force.

It was a weird trip, that jaunt to Asia. Hagel was due at a meeting of defense ministers from the ASEAN countries, being held in Brunei, and he made stops along the way in Hawaii, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Manila to show off the Obama Administration’s “strategic rebalance,” better known as the “pivot” to Asia. The day before Hagel took off from Andrews Air Force Base, however, Bashar al-Assad launched a Sarin attack on his own people, and Washington began to gear up for punitive airstrikes. It left the Secretary in the unenviable position of having to embark on a low-stakes diplomatic trip as the real decision-making was going on back in the capital. Hagel and his press staff made a big deal about how he was staying up all night to join secure videoconferences with the White House, and how a modern-day Pentagon chief needs to be able to walk and chew gum—but it was painfully awkward that the President was planning a war and hadn’t recalled the Secretary of Defense to come and help. Instead, this veteran legislator and heterodox thinker—boss of the world’s largest military—was asked to be a human placeholder.

As he made his way to Brunei, Hagel carried on dutifully with his brief. At his stop at the Marine base at Kaneohe Bay, near Honolulu, he stood under the baking sun, wearing a lei, and talked policy to several hundred sweltering troops. “You’re all much aware of our rebalance that President Obama initiated a couple of years ago,” he began (it was not at all clear that they were). “I had my first opportunity to directly assess and discuss our rebalancing when I was in Singapore at the Shangri-La dialogue with many of the ASEAN leaders and many other nations.” It has once been counted a major strength of Hagel’s that he’d been a foot soldier in combat in Vietnam, and that he would be able to relate to his grunts as one of their own. But the marines looked bored, and Hagel kept wandering off on tangents and name-dropping elderly senators. Answering his third straight audience question about potential cuts to military benefits (there were no questions about the Strategic Rebalance), Hagel discussed the challenging fiscal landscape and then offered: “These are realities. Life’s tough. I wish I controlled more things than I do. So do you. But I don’t.”

There are those like John McCain who have made that kind of blunt talk and refusal to pander into a kind of political trademark, and have styled themselves as no-bullshit honchos, the guys who Must Be Dealt With, but as Secretary, Hagel could never quite pull that off. During the days I followed him around Southeast Asia he appeared passive and diminished. He couldn’t articulate, in public or in private, his own philosophy about the use of force. “I think the world has had enough war,” he said at a press conference in Malaysia, only to enlist himself in the following days as a pitch-man for the proposed airstrikes in Syria, logging phone calls to Congress from the air and between formal meetings. “I don’t think they’re inconsistent,” he told me in his soundproof cabin on the flight home to Washington. “This is not going to war in another country, as defined probably by most wars,” he said. I pressed from different angles, asking about his experiences as a rifleman in a hopeless war, and what specifically we could and should hope to accomplish in Syria, or any other target of American intercession. He replied in ragged chains of platitudes and caveats.

Assuming that there is some sort of strike, are you confident that we can handle any kind of reprisal scenario? Attacks on Israel? Assad releasing the rest of his chemical weapons?

Well, I just got off the phone with the defense minister of Israel. We have to stay very engaged with all of our allies and partners, specifically in the region. You know—I’ve said, and you know from President Obama and Secretary Kerry and others—we’ve been talking all the time with our allies and partners all over the world, but specifically in the Middle East. Any action carries with it risks and consequences. And as I said, inaction does, too. And so you have to assess all that, based on this scenario, based on this option, what might be a Syrian response or Iranian response or a Hezbollah response. Sure. That’s why allies are key to this. But as I’ve said, whatever action is taken, we feel very confident about that action…

The war in Syria never happened, of course. Back stateside, Hagel busied himself at Congressional hearings but didn’t say much, repeatedly ceding the stage to Chairman Dempsey, and in the process ceded his last real claims to relevance. The administration that had promised a new approach to matters of war and peace was advocating for something discouragingly un-visionary—a statement strike whose only clear goal was to show that the president’s “red line” meant something—and the man who had made his career as a Republican veteran opposed to the Iraq war was now being asked to play the part of hawk. The effort collapsed into its own hollow center, and Hagel’s tenure as Secretary, as well as Obama’s foreign policy, may both have been doomed from that point.

Doomed, too, was the profile I was trying to write, as Hagel remained steadfastly unquotable. There was only one thing that he had managed to communicate to me in our two interviews, and that was that he really liked his job. “I look forward to getting up every morning,” he told me during our session on the plane. “Who am I meeting with today? Where am I?” He laughed. “But I don’t let myself drift too much into where I am at this moment, making history, or any of kind of the de Gaulle-type stuff.” He took a sip of the Perrier that had been set out for him by the Air Force steward. “If I am successful and do this job well enough that the president doesn’t ask me to leave before his term is over,” he said, “then as an old man I might be sitting around a rest home, if they’ll let me have a cocktail, thinking about this. But right now I don’t have time to think about it.”

A few weeks later I visited him at his generous office at the Pentagon. “I like this job very much,” he told me again. “If I’m gonna do this, Reid, I’d just as soon do it at a time where it really counts.” Hagel wore a pale blue tie and cufflinks shaped like teddy bears. “I’ve been called every name in the book and accused of everything; that just goes with the territory,” he said. “The fact is, you stay focused. You know what your job is. You do your job. And you don’t get drug down into the underbrush.” Until, inevitably, you do.

People once talked about Hagel as a presidential prospect, but as Secretary of Defense he seemed to be the accidental protagonist, wandering in from the wings to shake hands and have his picture taken representing the United States. When he appeared this morning in the State Dining Room for his ritual execution, he wore that same aspect of haplessness, forcing a smile and looking dazed as President Obama heaped praise on him. Only as Hagel took the podium himself did he seem to briefly come alive, as if he suddenly remembered that he enjoys just being a part of things. He thanked the president and his team at the Pentagon, and urged us all to have a good Thanksgiving, and then it was over. Muddle accomplished.