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Begin Again: Obama Fights for Rebalance on Chaotic Global Stage

Image: Protest in front of Tehran nuclear reactor

Iranian students gather during a protest in front of the Tehran Research Nuclear Reactor in Tehran, Iran, 23 November 2014, to show their support for Iran's nuclear program. ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH / EPA

The news out of Ferguson, MO turns out to be overshadowing one of the low points in President Obama’s national-security record. Consider: He’s now looking for his fourth Defense secretary after forcing Chuck Hagel to resign from the post. And the administration is scrambling after the Iran talks failed to produce a deal, which Team Obama so badly wants. (Yes, the United States and Iran are still talking, but the prospects of an eventual deal don’t look good right now.) More than anything else, chaos -- whether it’s ISIS, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Ebola outbreak in Africa -- has defined President Obama’s second term in office. And managing this chaos is perhaps the most charitable way to view the administration’s handling of these issues. Now maybe this is simply the “new normal” after the Pandora’s Box of the 2003 Iraq war and the Arab Spring were opened. But with a new Defense secretary coming in, now’s the time to see if the Obama White House can do more than manage the chaos -- and actually begin to control the events. After dumping Hagel, the New York Times writes that Obama told his national security team that it’s time to recapture the momentum. “The president’s message was that there’s a very full inbox, but that we have the ability to chart our own course, and make our own agenda, even with all this incoming,” a senior administration official told the Times. Whether or not they can chart that new course will go a long way in determining how Obama’s last two years in office play out.

“You’re not a wartime consigliere, Chuck”

Perhaps the biggest reason for Chuck Hagel’s resignation/firing as Defense secretary was that the job description had changed since he assumed the post in early 2013. Back then, Hagel was picked to oversee the drawdowns of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as manage the spending cuts at the Pentagon. But then the rise of ISIS happened. “Rather than winding down two wars, we’re winding up,” said a source close to Hagel and top Pentagon officials. Politico’s Glenn Thrush makes a similar point. “[Hagel] had signed on to preside over the end of Obama’s wars, a period the president envisioned as a time of downshifting and pulling back for the over-stressed American military. But that was then, after the 2012 election; now, Hagel reckoned, he wasn’t the kind of gung-ho, wartime consigliere Obama needed as he recalibrates his national security strategy to deal with a new round of conflict in the Middle East.” So cue this famous “Godfather” line. The irony here, of course, is that the first Defense secretary Obama truly wanted -- after inheriting Bob Gates and asking Leon Panetta to fill in -- failed him the most.

Hagel Resigns, Says 'It's Been the Greatest Privilege of My Life' 1:31

The two main contenders to succeed Hagel

There are two main contenders to replace Hagel -- former Pentagon official Michele Flournoy and former Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter. Flournoy would be the first female Defense secretary if she’s selected and confirmed. But a question we’ve heard is if she is comfortable being such a historical figure.

Plenty of questions out of Ferguson

Now we turn to what’s dominating the news: 1) the grand jury’s decision in Ferguson, MO not to indict office Darrell Wilson in the shooting of Michael Brown, and 2) the violence and unrest after that decision. There are so many questions: If a grand jury can essentially indict a “ham sandwich,” why couldn’t this grand jury do the same? With contradictions in witness testimony, should the grand jury or an actual trial have been the last word? And why in the heck was the announcement made last night instead of, say, this morning -- when there would be far fewer folks in the street?

A sterile Obama urges to keep the peace

Meanwhile, President Obama issued a statement after the announcement that the grand jury wasn’t indicting Wilson. He urged protestors and police to refrain from violence, and he also acknowledged a justice system that doesn’t seem to benefit African Americans. “The fact is, in too many parts of this country, a deep distrust exists between law enforcement and communities of color.” But after his rousing speech last week on immigration, Obama here was sterile – almost as if he needed to check a box by making a statement. Then again, we’re unsure if anyone could have said anything to diffuse the situation in Ferguson.

Happy Thanksgiving

Finally, a note that this will be our final column of the week. We’ll be back bright and early on Monday. Have a great Thanksgiving.

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