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Chuck Hagel’s departure from his post as U.S. defense secretary has been attributed to his failure to fit in with the Obama Cabinet’s crowd. Among his other reported deficiencies was that he was only a sergeant in Vietnam, twice wounded.

A twice-wounded veteran, I should think, would make him a rare specimen in a Washington packed full of senators and congressmen, and State Department and National Security Council staff who assume that they know more about war than Carl von Clausewitz, and unwounded but heavily decorated generals eager to get back to showing their stuff, as in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(As I have noted before, the most celebrated of those, David Petraeus, when he resigned from the army, was entitled to display more than 50 items of military adornment up one side and down the other of his chest, none of them an award for wounds suffered in combat. One understands why a former sergeant may be thought a social embarrassment, especially if he calls himself “Chuck.”)

Hagel’s real problem seems to have been to support too many wars for President Barack Obama (agreeing with the generals that airplanes don’t win wars) and too few of them for the Pentagon and some of the aggressively ideological ladies in the State Department and on the White House staff. The president was elected on a platform of ending the war in Iraq, already presumed effectively won, and to expedite victory in the more important war in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden made his home.

Many of Hagel’s fellow Republicans blame him because he did not find a way to override Iraq’s refusal to allow American forces to remain in there under the only circumstances the Pentagon would accept — with a status of forces agreement that preserved them from any kind of Iraqi oversight or any accountability to Iraqi officials or courts. If he had done so (and how? — this was a matter of Iraq’s national sovereignty) his critics say that the so-called Islamic State would have been strangled in its crib.

In Afghanistan the Pentagon did kill the 9/11 villain, Osama bin Laden (before Hagel’s time). Under Hagel’s stewardship the generals worked out a status of forces agreement allowing some U.S. troops to remain in that country with a limited mission to 2016, beyond their previously agreed departure date at the end of this year.

What they will accomplish is not by any stretch of imagination the victory Obama promised. Whether they will accomplish anything at all, beyond surviving, is questionable. Afghanistan unhappily is headed back under the control of the Taliban, who ruled it until driven out by American B-52s in 2001.

The Obama administration, in its sunset years, is in an impossible situation. Indeed, it is not merely the administration for which this is true; it is true too of the United States itself, so far as its foreign policy is concerned.

The country, after 14 years of essentially futile war in the Middle East and South Asia, discovers itself with a corrupt and incompetent Shiite government ally in Iraq, which cannot defend itself from its new Sunni would-be caliphate rival’s attacks without the air intervention of a dubious American-invented foreign “coalition,” itself reluctant to fight on the ground.

Nor is the Pentagon or the administration (presently) willing to fight another ground war. Yet Obama has promised to defeat the Islamic State army. Congress calls for it. And what may be called the humanitarian faction in the National Security Council and the State Department has pushed for intervention in Syria to support a nebulous “moderate” rebel faction, with the goal of rescuing Muslims from jihadists and oppressors of women, and building democracy.

Finally, Washington harbors its irreducible band of neoconservatives linked to reactionary and reckless Israeli Zionists on the brink of a new civil war with the Palestinians, thus contributing to the Islamic upheaval against the West.

The neoconservatives’ other preoccupation is to bring Ukraine into NATO, overthrow President Vladimir Putin, undermine Putin’s Russia, make it a capitalist democracy, break its developing link to China, and re-establish the U.S. as the world’s much-loved leader of all the democracies for the century to come. But neither I nor — we may hope — Obama has the time or space to go into that subject.

As for Chuck (Charles Timothy) Hagel, a Nebraskan born in North Platte (where this writer spent the first year of his infancy amid prairie cold and snow), he should not go home but to Florida, where all Nebraskans go in wintertime, and where he might find the politics even stranger than in Washington.

William Pfaff is a U.S. journalist based in Paris who focuses on foreign policy issues. © 2014 Tribune Content Agency

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