Former Secretary Of Defense Chuck Hagel’s Interview With Foreign Policy: What Secretary Didn’t Say, And Foreign Policy Didn’t Ask
In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, Former Secretary Of Defense Chuck Hagel said : “The White House micro-managed the Pentagon, stabbed him in the back on the way out — and, still has no strategy for fixing Syria.” As the, saying goes, “other than that Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”
Dan De Luce conducted an extensive interview with former Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) Chuck Hagel, about Secretary Hagel’s time as the Pentagon boss and his relationship — such as it was — with the White House and the National Security Council. SECDEF Hagel describes to Mr,. De Luce, a dinner that he and his wife were enjoying on August 30, 2014, although Secretary Hagel was jet-lagged, having just returned from an overseas trip, when his cell phone rang. POTUS Obama wanted to speak to him. As Mr. De Luce writes, “the POTUS had just publicly warned Syrian strongman Bashar al Assad that his regime would face serious consequences if it crossed a “red line” by employing chemical weapons against its [his] own people. Assad did it anyway, and Secretary Hagel had spent the day approving final plans for a barrage of Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against Damascus. U.S. naval destroyers were in the Mediterranean, awaiting orders to fire.” All major news outlets were reporting that it wasn’t a question of whether or not the U.S. would launch such strikes against Assad; but, when. Anti-Assad rebels in Syria were bolstered by what they thought was U.S. resolve; their morale was getting a much needed boost; and, the rebels no doubt felt such strikes would pay dividends for their cause and likely bring in more recruits.
But, POTUS Obama “told a stunned Hagel to stand-down,” Mr. De Luce writes. “Assad’s August 21 chemical attack in a Damascus suburb had killed hundreds of civilians; but, POTUS Obama said that the U.S. wasn’t going to take any military action against the Syrian government. The POTUS had decided to ignore his own red line — a decision Hagel believes that dealt a severe blow to both the credibility of both Obama, and the United States.”
“Whether it was the right decision, or not, history will determine that,” Hagel told Foreign Policy’s Mr. De Luce. “There’s no question in my mind that it hurt the credibility of the president’s word when this occurred,” Hagel said.
“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,” Mr. De Luce writes.
“A president’s word is a big thing, and when the president says things, that’s a big deal,” he said.
Secretary Hagel also told Mr. De Luce that “the Pentagon was subject to debilitating meddling, and micromanagement by the White House — echoing criticism made by his predecessors Robert Gates, and Leon Panetta.” The then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, complained “White House staffers were calling generals and asking fifth-level questions that the White House should not be involved in.” This kind of amateurish behavior was not isolated to Hagel’s tenure; but, also occurred when Bob Gates and Leon Pannetta served as Secretary of Defense.
“Looking back on his tenure, Hagel said in the December 10 interview with Foreign Policy’s Mr; De Luce 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 Adviser Susan Rice and some of her staff,” Mr. De Luce writes.
Secretary Hagel also discusses the implosion of Syria which took place on his, and the POTUS’s watch, and acknowledges that “the administration was caught flat-footed by the multi-sided conflict unfolding there; and, by the subsequent onslaught [rise] of the Islamic State.” Mr. De Luce adds that Secretary Hagel goes on to “describe an administration that lacked a clear strategy on Syria during his time in office [tenure]; and, suggest is [the Obama administration] may not have one anytime soon.”
Secretary Hagel also described how he would not be rushed into approving releasing Guantanamo Bay prison detainees; but, was repeatedly chastised by White House staffers for not being a team player and/or slow-rolling the process.
What Secretary Hagel Did Not Say, And, What Foreign Policy Did Not Ask
Secretary Hagel told Foreign Policy he was “stunned” by POTUS Obama’s decision against following through on his “red line” threat; but, Secretary Hagel does not say whether or not he recommended the POTUS reconsider. One would have expected that Hagel, in his position — would have not just sat there in stunned silence; but, stated his concerns to POTUS Obama about the potential negative consequences of not following through on his red-line threat. Did Secretary Hagel push back or recommend the POTUS reconsider? Secretary Hagel did not say, and Foreign Policy did not ask. It would be helpful to know. Does this POTUS welcome, or encourage his subordinates to speak their mind when they disagree with him; or, is this kind of honest advice discouraged and viewed as ‘not being a team player?’ It is important to know. One does get the opinion that this POTUS and his ‘palace guard,’ do not want to hear anything that might not jive with what they think. Or, did Secretary Hagel feel or believe he was in the position he was in — to carry out the POTUS’s direction; and, dissenting opinion was not to be spoken? If that was/is the case, it would go a long way towards explaining why this White House national security team seems to be so clueless and naive about foreign affairs and realpolitik.
Also, it would be interesting to know if Secretary Hagel was aware of the White House’s incessant micromanaging of the Pentagon. Secretary Hagel’s two predecessors, Bob Gates, and Leon Panetta have both made similar complaints. Did Secretary Hagel talk to either of these men who had just served in the position he was about to take? If he talked to them, and he was aware of this behavior, he certainly could have raised it when he was going through the nomination process. If so, he could have, and should have spoken to the POTUS about this behavior and gotten assurances from the POTUS — before actually taking the job — that this way of operating was unacceptable and detrimental to the Defense Department. If Secretary Hagel did speak to Mr. Gates, and Panetta, and knew of their complaints; but, chose not to raise it with the POTUS — up front — then shame on him. If however, Secretary Hagel did raise this issue with the POTUS; but, nothing changed — then shame on the POTUS. If Secretary Hagel did not talk to either Secretary Gates, nor Secretary Panetta before he took the job — that would be astounding. Like the issue I raised above, it would have been helpful and useful if Foreign Policy and Mr,.De Luce had explored either, or both of these areas.
The issue of Guantanamo Bay prison and the releasing of detainees isn’t surprising. This POTUS is wedded to the misguided impression that if we close Guantanamo that somehow this will diminish the Islamic State’s appeal and recruiting power. If only it were so,
But, POTUS Obama’s most profound and consequential decision not to follow through on the Syrian red line — may go down historically as the most damaging foreign policy decision in U.S. history. That decision, more than any other, has led to a devastating loss of U.S. prestige and credibility around the globe. Our allies no longer trust us; and, our adversaries no longer fear us. The next POTUS of the United States is going to have a lot of damage to repair; and, it is not going to be easy, nor short in duration. V/R, RCP