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Chuck Hagel steps down as defense secretary after months of pressure

The Pentagon chief’s resignation comes amid swirling criticism on national security issues

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has concluded it's an "appropriate time" for him to resign, President Barack Obama said Monday as he confirmed that the Pentagon chief would be stepping down from the post.

Hagel is the first Obama cabinet member to leave the administration after sweeping losses for Democrats in the midterm elections. It also comes amid sustained criticism of the president's national security team over its handling of multiple foreign policy crises.

In remarks made with Hagel standing at his side, Obama called the 68-year-old Vietnam veteran "an exemplary defense secretary" and steady hand for strategy and budget. Obama said he'll always be grateful that "behind closed doors" Hagel has "given it to me straight."

The last comments will fuel speculation that the decision to step down comes came in part due to Hagel's perceived inability to penetrate the inner circle that influences Obama on foreign policy matters.

In a statement to the Department of Defense, Hagel said he "did not make this decision lightly," but that he and Obama agreed "now was the right time for new leadership here at the Pentagon."

Hagel will remain in office until his successor is nominated and confirmed by the Senate, though it was unclear when that would be.

Earlier in the day, a senior White House official told Al Jazeera that Hagel “began speaking with the president about departing the administration, given the natural post-midterms transition time. These conversations have been ongoing for several weeks.”

Hagel is a Republican who served as senator from Nebraska and was a critic of U.S. involvement in Iraq. In his second term, Obama nominated Hagel to succeed Leon Panetta as defense secretary.

The secretary's resignation comes as the administration is under fire for its struggle to roll back ISIL as well as its unwillingness to directly confront Russia over the crisis in Ukraine. Hawkish critics of Obama's foreign policy argue that the president has been tepid on both those fronts.

Among the loudest of those critics is Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, who said in a statement Monday that Hagel was "frustrated with aspects of the administration's national security policy and decision-making process. His predecessors have spoken about the excessive micro-management they faced from the White House and how that made it more difficult to do their jobs successfully."

McCain added that Obama "needs to realize that the real source of his current failures on national security more often lie with his administration's misguided policies and the role played by his White House in devising and implementing them." 

Recent questions about Hagel's future at the Pentagon were prompted in part by his decision to postpone a long-planned trip this month to Vietnam. At the time, officials said he needed to remain in Washington for congressional consultations, but that did not stop speculation that the White House might be looking for a replacement for the final two years of Obama's term.

Just last week Hagel was asked about the speculation during an interview on PBS's Charlie Rose program. He was asked whether he's concerned about the speculation.

"No. First of all, I serve at the pleasure of the president," Hagel said. "I'm immensely grateful for the opportunity I've had the last two years to work every day for the country and for the men and women who serve this country. I don't get up in the morning and worry about my job. It's not unusual by the way, to change teams at different times."

Top potential candidates to replace Hagel include Michele Flournoy, a former under secretary of defense, and Ashton Carter, a former deputy secretary of defense, who were both rumored to be contenders for Hagel's job before he was named.

Senator Jack Reed, D-RI, is another possible contender.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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