Hagel the fall guy for White House's failed foreign policy?

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This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," November 29, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: This week on the "Journal Editorial Report," Chuck Hagel is out after just 20 months at the Pentagon. Is he the fall guy for the White House's failed foreign policy?

Plus, nuclear negotiations are extended again, giving Iran seven more months to build a bomb.

And from national security setbacks to his go-it-alone governance, is President Obama hurting Hillary Clinton's chances in 2016?

Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel resigned this week after just 20 months at the helm of the Pentagon, reportedly pushed out by President Obama in a move that further consolidates national security decision-making in the White House and raises questions about the direction of the administration's foreign policy its last two years.

For more, I'm joined by Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger; foreign affairs columnist, Bret Stephens; and editorial board member, Matt Kaminski.

So, what's fascinating here, Matt, is that many on the right and the left, in talking about the Hagel resignation, basically say the problem with Obama's foreign policy isn't Hagel, wasn't Hagel. It's in the White House.

MATT KAMINSKI, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: The thing is Chuck Hagel is a nonentity as the chief at the Pentagon. He started out very badly, if you remember, at his confirmation hearings. He could never articulate the policy. And then after he was thrown over, the White House spun that he was really not up to the job. Of course, they picked him for the job in the first place. But he was not the problem with the foreign policy --


GIGOT: Now, wait. You say he's was a nonentity. That's the White House spin. But is that fair? Or was the real problem the fact that the White House wanted to make all of the decisions? They hired him as a so- called implementer of the policy. And as the world changed, he decided, hey, maybe our policy needs to change, and he started representing the generals who didn't really like the Obama foreign policy?

KAMINSKI: I'm not sure how much support he really had in the House, at the Pentagon. He was not going to go down as one of the stronger secretaries of defense. But, again, he was immaterial to the failures of the foreign policy because the foreign policy is so centralized. And in fact, I think the reason why they pushed him out was because he was not the "yes man" they thought they were putting in --

GIGOT: Exactly. Exactly.

KAMINSKI: And he was pushing back at the end. He was frustrated. But he had no influence. So I think, is it bad that he's gone? Probably, not.

GIGOT: He said how -- he spoke up and said, with Chairman Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, that ISIS was a bigger threat than the White House was admitting.


GIGOT: He pushed back on Syria, and said your policy lacks clarity, and we need to get clarity if we're going to succeed against ISIS, and the White House certainly didn't like that, Bret.

STEPHENS: No. That's absolutely true. I guess you can give him a point or two for finally sort of seeing the light. But let's face it, this was an incompetent secretary of defense who had his agenda, which was mainly a personal agenda, to serve in the office, and then you have an incompetent national security process in the White House, and the two of them simply didn't get along. This could be an opportunity for the president to really pivot on defense issues and really pivot on national security, choose a strong capable secretary of defense in the mold of some of the previous two, like Leon Panetta and Robert Gates. My guess is that what the president is going to want is another fat toad in the Pentagon so he can continue to run defense policy out of the White House.

GIGOT: Confidence is not high that that is going -- that kind of pivot is going --

DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST, DEPUTY EDITOR: Well, confidence is not high anywhere in the world about the Obama foreign policy.


There's sort of an irony here. One of the criticisms that came out of the Pentagon was that the White House insists on micromanaging policy. But the Pentagon also said that they could not get decisions out of this White House, that their ability to make decisions is very weak. You know, that's what you hear in the capitals all over the world. The Saudis would say to people, what is Obama's strategic policy in this region, because we'll get visited by a secretary of defense and secretary of state, and they are al coming in with different ideas about what we should be doing.

GIGOT: I will say, we're not making this up.


GIGOT: Everybody who comes through, from anybody, any country, Europe, Middle East or so, and they all have the same message.

HENNINGER: No strategist vision.

GIGOT: What is the policy?

STEPHENS: Yeah, the policy of the Obama administration is to have less foreign policy and to hope to offshore our problems or strategic problems to some other countries, except when it really matter to the administration, for instance, Iran. So there's a sense of a shrinking American footprint, and allies from Japan to Israel to Baltic States and Poland, are asking themselves, where's the United States.

GIGOT: Is there a sign, Matt -- sorry. Is there a sign of a larger shake-up here in the staff?

KAMINSKI: I don't think so. I think this is basically the only head that's going to fall. And they went out of their way to praise John Kerry, at State. Susan Rice is going to -- seems like, is going to stay put as the national security adviser. But the crisis of confidence is also, I think, in the Obama administration. I keep hearing Washington --


GIGOT: Inside, you mean. Insider?

KAMINSKI: Things have clearly not worked for them. And if you're working on a team where things are not working out, even President Obama might have some self-doubts.

GIGOT: And that's why you have some of this sniping as Hagel goes out the door? Most unseemly. This is not what -- had that dog-and-pony show where they shook hands in the White House and everything seemed to be --


STEPHENS: Well, this was several weeks in the making. This didn't just happen overnight. The president didn't wake up in the morning and decide to fire Chuck Hagel. What I don't understand is why don't they have a replacement ready to go right away? This is -- I mean, we're living in a period of serious national security crises. That's not an office you want to leave unfilled for a matter of months or have a vacuum there.

GIGOT: But who would want to take the job?

HENNINGER: Who would want to take the job? You can't take this job unless you're willing to be a "yes man," or as Matt suggested, do what the president wants you to do. John Kerry got the climate deal with China. He's now pursuing the agreement with Iran. Chuck Hagel started to push back on Guantanamo and the Middle East, he was out of there. Who will they find who just says yes --


GIGOT: Well, Michele Flournoy is one of favorites, leaked by the White House, as some reformer. Undersecretary of defense. She took herself out, I think, for precisely that reason. It would not be a job that would be easy to take. Problem is we've still got two more years of this administration.

When we come back, more time for Tehran. The administration agrees to extend nuclear negotiations until June. So does it give us a real shot at striking a deal, or Iran seven more months to build a bomb?



JOHN KERRY, SECRETARY OF STATE: We don't want just any agreement. We want the right agreement. Time and again, from the day that he took office, President Obama has been crystal clear that we must ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, period.


GIGOT: Secretary of State John Kerry in Vienna announcing Monday that the U.S. and its partners have agreed to extend nuclear talks with Iran for seven more months after negotiators failed for the second time this year to meet the deadline for a deal.

So, Bret, since that announcement, a lot of talk in the media and by the negotiators, including the French, saying a lot of progress here, that justified the extension. How do you read it?

STEPHENS: Yeah. The gaps are narrowing because the West keeps making concessions to Iran. The gaps are only narrowing in one direction. It's not as if the Iranians are coming our way. The real problem is, you'll hear from John Kerry that we've frozen the Iranian nuclear program. What we've really frozen or mostly frozen is that part of their program they have perfected. But we hear from the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency that the Iranians keep stonewalling on giving all of the information about suspected nuclear military --


GIGOT: These are so-called U.N. inspectors?

STEPHENS: Right, exactly. So the Iranians keep doing what they want to do to perfect the technologies they haven't yet perfected, mainly the weaponization side of making a bomb, and they've agreed to the suspension of what they themselves -- of the enrichment aspect, something, as they've said, they can start up at any time.

GIGOT: But here's what the administration would say. Isn't that kind of freezing, even that, better than calling the talks off, and a breakout of what could be a sprint by Iran to get a weapon?

STEPHENS: Iran could sprint really at any time. What we're doing is essentially we're in the process of deceiving ourselves that we have frozen a program that is, by no means, frozen. The Iranians keep making progress.

By the way, bear in mind, we've only frozen part of the program that the Iranians have declared. But the Iranians have a 20-year track record of deceiving the West, deceiving the international community, and maintaining a part of the program in a covert fashion. So this is part of the problem. We are imagining that we're seeing the whole of their program but we know, from past experience, that there's always something else.

GIGOT: Anybody here a little more optimistic take on this?

HENNINGER: Well, no. It's hard to be more optimistic. The thing that the administration seems to forget, or liberals won't recognize, is that the Iranian Revolution is a messianic ideological revolution. And its legitimacy is defined by getting nuclear capability. They have spent billions and billions of dollars to get to this point. The idea they are going to negotiate, that sets all this aside, is simply a pipe dream. But liberals like John Kerry and Barack Obama simply won't recognize realty.

GIGOT: But if you put inspectors in there, OK, if you get them to reduce the uranium they enrich, if you get them to limit the number of centrifuges they have, don't you at least reduce the chances of a breakout capability? And give it some time. Maybe Kerry keeps talking about a year, where if they did move towards getting a bomb, we could at least then take some action.

KAMINSKI: I think the Iranians have seen right through this. They know --


GIGOT: Is that question not right? Is there any --


KAMINSKI: That's a good question, but the way it's -- for Iran is not a negotiation. It's basically they understand that we are giving them time by starting this process last year. We lifted both the military pressure and the economic pressure that was put there painstakingly over several years with the sanctions. So what happened in the last year? The economy has gotten a lot better in Iran. The currency has stabilized. On the military side, that threat of any military strike by the West is off the table. No one believes President Obama is going to go even near there or make that credible threat happen. So for Iran, they are saying, OK, let's bide time to get the sanctions going and progress on the bomb seven months, 12 months.

GIGOT: This is why I don't -- this is what I don't get. Why don't the Iranians, if the deal is so great --


GIGOT: Why don't they take it? They can get right up to the cusp of having a bomb, as you describe it. They could maybe keep a covert operation on the side. And yet they get sanctions to vanish and they could help their economy?

STEPHENS: Well, there are a number of reasons. One, they probably think they can get a better deal by continuing extensions because it's always the West that makes the concessions, not the Iranians. But Dan's point is fundamental. This is not simply a pragmatic issue for the Iranians. It's an ideological issue for them. It's about not bending, not bowing to the global arrogance. It's about acquiring a nuclear capability, whether it's a weapon or breakout capability that puts them on an equal footing. Because what they've observed is that once a country has a nuclear weapon, that country has strategic opportunities that countries without nuclear weapons don't.


STEPHENS: North Korea, Pakistan, India, these are countries that we, by force, have to respect and can't really --


GIGOT: But isn't the implication of what you're saying, then, maybe nuclear -- that military force, rather -- not nuclear -- but military force is the only way to stop them?

STEPHENS: Either that or sanctions that are so crippling that it really puts the Iranians to a fundamental choice, their regime or the bomb.

GIGOT: All right, gentlemen.

When we come back, from the foreign policy failures to his go-it-alone gamble on immigration, is President Obama damaging Hillary Clinton's chances in 2016?


GIGOT: Well, from his foreign policy woes to his post-midterm move to the left and recent high-risk gamble on immigration, is President Obama hurting Hillary Clinton's chances in 2016? In a Wall Street Journal op- ed this week, pollsters, Pat Caddell and Doug Schoen, argued that, quote, "As a candidate, Mrs. Clinton would likely inherit a damaged party and, as a former member of the administration, she would struggle with the consequences of Mr. Obama's go-it-alone governance."

We're back with Dan Henninger. Wall Street Journal Political Diary editor, Jason Riley; and Washington columnist, Kim Strassel, also joins the panel.

So, Kim, is Barack Obama Hillary Clinton's biggest obstacle to the White House?

KIM STRASSEL, WASHINGTON COLUMNIST: Yeah. Here's Hillary Clinton's problem. She's going to inherit a party that is not just damaged but it's damaged because it's been increasingly dominated by, thanks to Obama, the very liberal faction of its party, which was pushing policies, demanding policies that are not popular with a vast majority of Americans. And I'll give you a couple of examples of how this plays out. Keystone and the National Security Agency --


GIGOT: That's the pipeline, yeah.

STRASSEL: Yeah, Keystone Pipeline and also this question of national security. If you go back to 2008, those would have been probably pretty easy calls for Hillary Clinton. Because, remember, she ran as the Democratic candidate who represented the white working class. She was all about middle class incomes doing well. But she has been very careful. She has had no opinions, made no statements on whether or not she supports Keystone or whether or not she wants to keep things like the NSA program in place. By the way, remember, she was very big --


GIGOT: Her point was that she was stronger on foreign policy than Barack Obama. She hasn't touched those because, for the left in her party, those have become symbolic, sort of totemic issues that you cannot be pure and support those things. She stuck in between these two issues and she's just saying nothing.


But she did embrace the president's immigration executive order right away, without any doubts. If Obama is such an obstacle to her, why do that?

JASON RILEY, POLITICAL DIARY EDITOR: That's a risk but she wants those Hispanic voters. She thinks that will help -- he thinks that will help her as well. So they agree on that.

But Kim is right. Hillary Clinton needs Barack Obama to move to the middle. And he's decided to double down on his policies that the midterm election showed to be unpopular with most of the electorate, even if they are popular with his base. Obama's approval rating, Paul, is only 40 percent. In fact, it's below 40 percent.

GIGOT: In some surveys, yeah.

RILEY: So this is not a president with a whole lot of political capital. Hillary Clinton does not have his charisma. She does not have his campaign skills. So to pile a damaged brand on top that, I think it makes things difficult for her.

GIGOT: Well, she did try, in her book, earlier this year, to separate herself on foreign policy some, saying -- writing that she had a different point of view on Syria, for example, would have done more to intervene earlier to help the moderate opposition to Bashar Assad. How else does she separate herself from Obama?

HENNINGER: Well, I think that the main area -- she'll have to talk about foreign policy. And I think probably voters would give her a little bit of a pass on that foreign policy as kind of one of these tabula rasas, where you just simply define who you want to deal with.

GIGOT: Even though she was his secretary of state?

HENNINGER: You know, it was -- we watched that closely. I don't think the average voter watched it all that closely. It's domestic policy where she's really going to have to separate herself from Obama. But her problem is that the Democratic left is the -- is the group that defeated Hillary Clinton in those primaries, and Barack Obama was their president. He has been the embodiment, I think, of the left's policies. You cannot get elected president, I don't believe, by simply running to the left. So how does she square the circle between holding them in place but making a broader appeal to the American people?

GIGOT: Kim, you have any good advice for Hillary Clinton for how to do that? What issues would you pick?

STRASSEL: I mean, there are very simple issues. Foreign policy should be one. Again, she's got a legacy, as you say, that's going to be difficult for her to run from. She's going to be somewhat dragged down.

But look at things like energy, for instance, and Keystone. Again, those should be easy calls. She nearly won that primary in 2008 by getting what our people call Clinton Democrats, you know, folks that have been unhappy with the move that the party has made to the left. You go out and you support more drilling, things like Keystone. You connect that to an agenda which Democrats claim to have of helping middle class voters. Those are things she could separate herself on. Will she do it? I don't know if you can, because, again, the environmental left dominates the party so much now, thanks to Obama.

GIGOT: I want to raise another issue where she may have a problem, and that -- listen to Chuck Schumer, New York Senator, talking this week about ObamaCare.


SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, D-N.Y.: Unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them. We took their mandate and put all of our focus on the wrong problem, health care reform. Now the plight of uninsured Americans and the hardships caused by unfair insurance company practices certainly needed to be addressed. But it wasn't the change we were hired to make.


GIGOT: Whoa, Nelly!


The wrong problem, health care reform? I mean --


RILEY: It illustrates how Hillary Clinton won't be able to run on Obama's record, because there isn't much of one. And what he considers his accomplishments are now being denounced by leadership in his own party.

GIGOT: Does this mean --

RILEY: They're running away from him.

GIGOT: Does this mean she has -- well, let me put it -- is Schumer front running Hillary Clinton --


GIGOT: I'm going to attack ObamaCare and basically pave the way for Hillary Clinton to be able to separate herself from ObamaCare.

RILEY: I think he is in her camp and would do what it takes to help here. And so I wouldn't put that past him at all.

GIGOT: The White House already attacking Schumer.

HENNINGER: Oh, yeah. It's so --


HENNINGER: That speech was stunning, to say that ObamaCare was a mistake. But what he also said, the Democrats are the party of government. We have to make clear to the American people how government works. I can't wait to see how he does that.

GIGOT: All right.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, "Hits & Misses" of the week.


GIGOT: Time now for "Hits & Misses" of the week.

Jason, start us off.

RILEY: This is a miss for the rioters in Ferguson who are setting police cars on fire and looting. It's also a miss for the media who continue to refer to these hooligans as protesters. Paul, the criminality of Michael Brown should be denounced and, instead, it's being mimicked.

GIGOT: All right.

Kimberly Strassel?

STRASSEL: IRS commissioner, John Koskinen, has been insisting for six months that his agency cannot turn over to congressional investigators e- mails from Lois Lerner for a very crucial time period because they've said her hard drive had crashed and those e-mails had been destroyed. This is a huge miss for him on the back of the news that the treasury inspector general has found all of those e-mails. Surprise. Just sitting on a backup tape, which the IRS either didn't bother to look at or purposely ignored.

GIGOT: Imagine that.



HENNINGER: Paul, a hit to two of our best-known Senators, Ted Cruz of Texas, and Al Franken of Minnesota, for having a street fight over -- get this -- net neutrality. Now I know a lot of people find it confusing. This is the idea of whether the government should regulate the Internet or not. And after Al Franken said Ted Cruz had no idea what he was talking about, Ted Cruz produced a YouTube video explaining net neutrality, and it's actually a pretty good video. So I would say, by the standards of Washington discourse, this is definitely progress.

GIGOT: Well, but what's going to happen? Who's going to win?

HENNINGER: Ted Cruz is going to win, believe it or not. And I think we should just throw him a bouquet for once.

GIGOT: I wish I could agree with you. I think President Obama may side with Franken, instead. Just a guess.


All right. And remember, if you have your own hit or miss, be sure to tweet it to us at JER@ foxnews.com.

That's it for this week's. Thanks to my panel and to all of you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. Hope to see you right here next week.

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