Many questioned Barack Obama’s judgment when he backed away from his own “red line” in Syria, but Chuck Hagel tells Foreign Policy in an exclusive interview that it was actually worse than that. Obama lost his nerve, Hagel alleges, calling off promised strikes on Syria after Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons. Hagel also says that Obama’s team then stabbed him in the back as he was heading for the exits, and tried to “destroy me”:
Jet-lagged from a long overseas trip, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel had just sat down with his wife for a quiet dinner at an upscale Italian restaurant in northern Virginia when his phone rang. It was the White House on the line. President Barack Obama wanted to speak with him.
It was Aug. 30, 2013, and the U.S. military was poised for war. Obama had publicly warned Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad that his regime would face consequences if it crossed a “red line” by employing chemical weapons against its own people. Assad did it anyway, and 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.
Instead, Obama told a stunned Hagel to stand down. Assad’s Aug. 21 chemical attack in a Damascus suburb had killed hundreds of civilians, but the president said the United States wasn’t going to take any military action against the Syrian government. The president had decided to ignore his own red line — a decision, Hagel believes, that dealt a severe blow to the credibility of both Obama and the United States. …
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.
Hagel didn’t just order up the strikes on a whim. Obama had publicly announced his red line, and the consequences of crossing it — a military response from the US. Hagel had prepared for that contingency. The retreat was just one in a series of moves that Hagel cites in the interview that demonstrate a lack of strategic or even tactical thinking from Obama and his team.
Instead, Hagel told FP, politics was the priority, not national security or a coherent foreign policy:
Hagel said the politically motivated micromanagement, combined with a mushrooming bureaucracy at the National Security Council, raises a real risk for the executive branch — potentially undercutting the proper functioning of the Pentagon and other cabinet offices.
“There is a danger in all of this,” he said. “This is about governance; this isn’t about political optics. It’s about making the country run and function, and trying to stay ahead of the dangers and the threats you see coming.”
This raises a serious problem for Obama. So far, he has had four Secretaries of Defense — Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, Hagel, and the current SecDef, Ash Carter. All three who have departed Obama’s administration have leveled serious criticisms of the way in which security and military issues have been handled. Hagel’s allegations are the most serious of them all, but fits the pattern suggested by the memoirs of his predecessors.
Hagel sealed his fate when he refused to go along with the White House’s desire to empty Guantanamo Bay. He blocked transfers based on threat assessments from within the Department of Defense, and that angered the White House. In the end, Hagel — who didn’t have a lot of credibility for this position in the first place — found himself isolated and outmatched politically.
Perhaps not for much longer, though. Hagel will certainly produce his own memoirs soon enough, and those may prove even more intriguing than Gates’ or Panetta’s.