Former secretary of defense Chuck Hagel pulled no punches in a new interview, accusing the White House of failing to devise a coherent strategy on Syria and of being utterly unprepared for the rise of the Islamic State terror group. He also charged that some in the Obama White House tried to “destroy” him politically in his last days in the job.
In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine published Friday, the former Republican senator who joined the Obama administration — and was vilified by his party colleagues for doing so — said that the decision to refrain from attacking the Assad regime after it used chemical weapons on its own civilian population in August 2013 was a terrible misstep.
The decision contradicted a warning Obama previously issued to Syrian President Bashar Assad that using such weapons would cross a “red line.”
“Whether it was the right decision or not, history will determine that,” Hagel said. “There’s no question in my mind that it hurt the credibility of the president’s word when this occurred.”
He said that for a president to go back on his word inflicted a major blow to the US’s reputation abroad.
“A president’s word is a big thing, and when the president says things, that’s a big deal,” Hagel told FP.
According to Foreign Policy, Hagel’s counterparts around the world told him that their confidence in America’s leadership had been shaken by Obama’s sudden change of heart.
Hagel said that even now, 10 months after he stepped down as secretary of defense, foreign leaders still mention it to him.
The former defense chief cited the episode as typical of the White House’s struggle to formulate an effective policy on the Syrian civil war.
Hagel said that despite the administration’s efforts to steer clear of the Syrian conflict, the rapid advances of Islamic State came as a “jolt” to the White House.
While Obama initially dismissed the threat of IS in a June 2014 interview, comparing the terror group to a “JV [Junior Varsity] team,” Hagel in August of that year told reporters the group “is beyond anything that we’ve seen.”
Even as the war progressed and became increasingly more brutal, he said, American officials would hold lengthy meetings that came up with nothing.
“For one thing, there were way too many meetings. The meetings were not productive,” Hagel said. “I don’t think many times we ever actually got to where we needed to be. We kept kind of deferring the tough decisions. And there were always too many people in the room.”
At larger White House meetings, where some of those present were staffers he did not even know, Hagel preferred to keep his comments brief, fearing his stance would find its way into media reports. “The more people you have in a room, the more possibilities there are for self-serving leaks to shape and influence decisions in the press,” he said.
Echoing criticism made by his predecessors, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, Hagel said the White House micromanaged the Pentagon to a debilitating degree.
Hagel’s criticism suggested that Washington was not only caught unprepared for the confusing picture emerging from the Syrian civil war but that it may not have an effective strategy anytime soon.
The Foreign Policy piece appeared on Friday, the day the UN’s Security Council adopted a decision on a peace process for Syria which does not mention when President Bashar Assad will step down, if at all.
In an end-of-year press conference the same day, Obama said his strategy in Syria – mainly against Islamic State – will be effective, but reiterated that it will continue to rely solely on air power.
Hagel also used the interview to charge that unnamed administration officials tried to “destroy” him personally in his final days in office, by castigating him in anonymous remarks to newspapers.
“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 US military prison at Guantánamo,” Foreign Policy reported.