RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
We've got news this hour that the U.S. secretary of defense is stepping down. President Obama is expected to announce later this morning the resignation of Chuck Hagel. This comes amidst concern over the rise of ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, and a return of American troops to Iraq - a war that, as a Republican senator, Hagel had long criticized. Hagel was named defense secretary just under two years ago when the highest priorities of the Obama administration were to cut the Pentagon budget and to get out of America's wars. For more, we're joined now by NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman. Good morning.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: How surprising is this?
BOWMAN: You know, it is surprising. There's been rumors around the Pentagon that Hagel would not stay for the rest of the term, but this abrupt departure is surprising, I think, to many people. A defense official told me this is done by mutual agreement between Hagel and the White House, but others are saying he was pressured to leave. And one reason, we're told, is that he favored a more hard-line approach toward Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Of course he is locked in a fight with the rebels in his country, and 200,000 people have died. President Obama has said he wants Assad to go, but the White House says the main focus is the Islamic State now and taking on the Islamic State. So he did - Hagel did fight with some White House officials on that issue, but again, a defense official says mutual agreement. We'll just have to see what more we can learn today.
MONTAGNE: Well, so if the main focus is now taking on a fight, does that suggest whether Secretary Hagel stepped down voluntarily or has been pressured to go? Does that suggest that he wouldn't be up to doing that?
BOWMAN: Well, you know, there are some complaints about Hagel. He's not as focused on the job. He doesn't talk much in Cabinet meetings. He's seen as a weaker defense secretary then of course his predecessors - hard-charging folks like Leon Panetta, Robert Gates. A lot of people said he's just not a very good fit for the job. He again doesn't seem as focused on the issues. I've heard this repeatedly from defense officials who've traveled with him around the world. He doesn't seem to be engaged in the job. So that could be part of this as well.
MONTAGNE: And the positives, just in a few seconds, how he will be remembered for his time at the Pentagon?
BOWMAN: Well, his - the term is so short for Hagel, I don't think he's going to be remembered for much. But one thing he did like to do was have monthly lunches with non-commissioned officers, sergeants and others at the Pentagon. He, of course, is a former sergeant himself. He is seen as sort of a regular guy who liked to hang out with soldiers. And I think, if anything, that's how he'll be remembered.
MONTAGNE: Tom, thanks very much.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Renee.
MONTAGNE: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman on the announcement this morning that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will be stepping down. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.