Chuck Hagel resigns: US Defence Secretary 'to step down'

Resignation comes after only a brief tenure and leaves office with a number of commitments internationally

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Chuck Hagel is stepping down from his post as United States Defence Secretary after only a brief tenure and at a time when the Pentagon has a full plate of commitments around the globe ranging from the deepening engagement with the Islamic State and the fight against Ebola in Africa.

Mr Hagel, a Republican and former member of the US Senate, only took up the job as leader of the Pentagon last year and news that he was to step down caught many in Washington by surprise.  It is also likely to startle America’s allies around the world, not least the defence chiefs in Britain.

There was little clarity as the reasons for his abrupt departure, with questions being asked whether he jumped from the post or whether he was pushed.  Sources said that his continuing tenure at the Pentagon had been a subject of discussion between himself and President Barack Obama for weeks. 

That certainly seemed to suggest that Mr Obama had expressed unhappiness at Mr Hagel’s performance at the defence department.  It has been known for some time that the president’s national security team has been frustrated with the response of a few members of the cabinet to various crises around the globe not least the advance of Isis in Syria and Iraq.

Mr Hagel is also seen by some to have shown disloyalty with recent comments on policy towards Syria that were out of line with those expressed by the White House.

It appeared that a decision that Mr Hagel would go was tentatively reached at the end of last week and that he submitted his formal resignation early today and that Mr Obama immediately accepted it.  The President was to make an official statement later on Monday at the White House. Officials said Mr Hagel would remain active in the post until a replacement is found.

That process, however, is likely to be fraught with difficulty.  Mr Hagel won confirmation in the US Senate in part because he came from the Republican Party and opposition to his taking the job was therefore more or less neutralised.   It may be that Mr Obama will have to find another Republican for the job since control of the Senate switches from Democrat to Republican at the start of January.

Allies of America will be deeply unsettled by the notion of a vacuum at the top of the Pentagon at a time when so many urgent problems are raging.  Aside from the Ebola crisis and the ravaging of parts of Syria and Iraq by Isis, there are other areas of tension, including Yemen and Iran, particularly in the light of news today that a deal on restraining its nuclear ambitions has been put off once more.