Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel sat down with Foreign Policy magazine in a two-hour interview that revealed the frightening weakness and indecision of the Obama administration, especially with regards to Syria.
Hagel recalls the “red line” set by Obama that President Assad crossed when he killed hundreds of civilians with a chemical-weapons attack. He said that he had just returned from Europe, lining up our allies to support us in what was going to be a devastating strike with Tomahawk cruise missiles, when the president called him and told him to stand down.
“Whether it was the right decision or not, history will determine that,” Hagel told Foreign Policy in a two-hour interview, his first extensive public comments since he was forced out of his position in February.
In the days and months afterward, Hagel’s counterparts around the world told him their confidence in Washington had been shaken over Obama’s sudden about-face. And the former defense secretary said he still hears complaints to this day from foreign leaders.
“A president’s word is a big thing, and when the president says things, that’s a big deal,” he said.
Only the intervention of Vladimir Putin, who got President Assad to turn in his chemical weapons, saved Obama and the U.S. from total humiliation. (Assad sill uses chlorine gas on civilians, but the president says it isn’t a chemical weapon.)
Hagel echoed criticisms of the two previous secretaries of defense in the Obama administration about White House meddling and micromanaging affairs at the Pentagon:
Looking back on his tenure, Hagel said in the Dec. 10 interview that he remains puzzled as to why some administration officials sought to “destroy” him personally in his final days in office, castigating him in anonymous comments to newspapers even after he had handed in his resignation.
Although he does not identify her by name, Hagel’s criticisms are clearly aimed at Obama’s national security advisor, Susan Rice, and some of her staff. Hagel’s former aides, and former White House officials, say the defense secretary frequently butted heads with Rice over Syria policy and the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo.
The former Pentagon chief offers a view from inside an administration that was caught flat-footed by the multi-sided conflict in Syria and by the subsequent onslaught of the Islamic State. His account describes an administration that lacked a clear strategy on Syria during his time in office and suggests that it may not have one anytime soon — despite the mounting carnage and waves of refugees.
The interview also sheds some light on the president’s weird decision-making process:
Hagel, now that time has passed and he’s willing to discuss his tenure in office, cited the episode as an example of a White House that has struggled to formulate a coherent policy on Syria, holding interminable meetings that would often end without a decision, even as conditions on the ground worsened and the death toll grew steadily higher.
We heard the exact same thing in the aftermath of the decision to go forward with a “surge” in Afghanistan — it took 6 months for the president to come to that decision. Meetings would go over the same ground over and over again, with the president failing to make a decision. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground in Afghanistan was getting worse — just as it did in Syria while the president failed to develop a coherent plan to stop Islamic State.
Hagel is not the brightest bulb in the room, as he showed at his confirmation hearing. But given the fact that his pointed criticisms echo those of other former secretaries of defense, I see no reason not to believe that he is accurately portraying his time in office.