WASHINGTON (AFP) – President Barack Obama announced the departure of US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel on Monday, with the White House under fire over perceived fumbling in its response to the Islamic State threat.
The former Republican senator, who has been in the job for less than two years, was chosen to oversee a shift to a peacetime military with smaller defence budgets, but found the United States at war again.
Rapid advances by Islamic State radicals in Syria and Iraq forced the Pentagon chief into managing a complex campaign, and Obama concluded Hagel was not the man for the task.
The 68-year-old Vietnam war veteran joined Obama at the White House to confirm his departure.
“When I asked Chuck to serve as secretary of defence we were entering a significant period of transition: the drawdown in Afghanistan, the need to prepare our forces for future missions and tough fiscal choices to keep our military strong and ready,” Obama said.
“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.”
Hagel thanked Obama for his “friendship,” saying he believed he had put the military and the nation on a “stronger course toward stability.”
On radical militant websites and Twitter accounts, Islamic State supporters celebrated “victory” against Hagel, claiming he had been forced out by their successes against US allies on the battlefield.
Both Obama and Hagel presented the decision as mutually agreed, but administration officials privately suggested he had been pushed out, while Obama’s critics said Hagel had been frustrated by White House meddling.
Some commentators said Hagel had run afoul of Obama’s aides by siding with military commanders in internal policy debates, but officials denied the claim.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Obama and Hagel agreed it was time for “new leadership.”