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White House To Find Successor To Defense Secretary Hagel

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The resignation of a Cabinet secretary, let alone a secretary of defense, raises questions about the job that person had been doing as well as the policies the White House wanted to implement. Those were the kinds of issues raised yesterday when Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's resignation was announced. Hagel is staying on until his replacement is found. NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is in the studio with me. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So the White House says this was a mutual decision, that Hagel and the president came together. What are you hearing?

BOWMAN: Well, I'm hearing there's been recent sniping by anonymous White House officials. You look at The New York Times, they said Hagel was often silent at Cabinet meetings and that he had a hard time explaining administration policy against the Islamic State. I've heard similar complaints from Pentagon officials as well.

GREENE: OK, so that's some of the criticism. Have Hagel's defenders been coming out and speaking or speaking privately?

BOWMAN: Yeah, Hagel's defenders point out that, listen, Hagel himself is critical of the administration's Syrian policy. Just last month Hagel wrote a memo to National Security Adviser Susan Rice saying the policy failed to address what to do about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who the U.S. wants to go.

And this gets to the larger problem, David - a growing number of Democrats and Republicans say it's a confused Syria policy. On the one hand, the administration is bombing the so-called Islamic State, on the other, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is bombing the moderate Syrian rebels, who the U.S. supports. And I asked Hagel just a few weeks ago, does this make a side stronger? And this is what he had to say.

U.S. DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: Well, the complications of Syria - you have just noted some - in particular, as we and the coalition go after ISIL to help the Iraqis secure their government, but also the Middle East. Yes, Assad derives some benefit of that, of course.

BOWMAN: So that may have been what the White House officials were complaining about. Hagel has a hard time defending and explaining the policy. But again, this policy itself is also under fire.

GREENE: So not out rightly questioning administration policy there. But, I mean, you can hear sort of bits and pieces of that in his tone, which might give us a window into some of the disagreement with this administration over what to do with Syria, which makes me wonder, anyone taking the helm at the Pentagon, won't they have a hard time explaining a strategy if there's a sort of a difference of opinion?

BOWMAN: You know, I think so. Now the administration is hopeful that the airstrikes will weaken the Islamic State over time - maybe years - and that training Syrian rebels and Iraqi military will then allow that crucial ground force to the finish the job. And the question of Assad can wait until later. That's what they're saying; this could be worked out diplomatically. So they're kind of kicking the Assad can down the road, so to speak.

GREENE: OK and - but all of that will have to be dealt with the new defense secretary. And we're going to have a confirmation hearing whoever is nominated. We're looking at a GOP-controlled Senate in the new year with Senator John McCain leading the committee that will vet Hagel's successor, right? What does that all mean?

BOWMAN: That's right, and it's interesting. Senator McCain came out yesterday defending Hagel, saying Hagel was frustrated by the White House policy against ISIS, and McCain said Hagel also felt he was being micromanaged by the White House. That's a complaint I've heard from others at the Pentagon as well. And McCain has urged stronger action against Syrian President Assad, more support to the Syrian rebels. And all that of that, David, is certainly - will come up at the confirmation hearing for the next secretary of defense.

GREENE: Just a couple seconds left - a few names on the short list?

BOWMAN: Well, David, the one name everyone is mentioning is Michelle Flournoy. She served as a top policy official at the Pentagon and now runs a think tank. She's highly respected, and she would be the first woman defense secretary.

GREENE: All right. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman talking to us about the departure of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Tom, thanks a lot.

BOWMAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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