The Obama administration’s lack of a defined, coherent policy on Syria was the result of too many directionless meetings and far too little commitment by the man at the top, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel insists.
In a wide-ranging interview with Foreign Policy, Hagel paints a dismal picture of ineffectual leadership and a lack of direction from the late summer of 2013, when the Syrian crisis was reaching its first boil, to October 2014, when Hagel sent around a memo that said “we don’t have a policy.”
Hagel cited a telling incident. On Aug. 30, 2013, he had finished arranging for Tomahawk cruise missile strikes against Syria after Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad used gas against his own people, crossing President Obama’s supposed “red line.” Then, Obama called him to cancel the attack.
“There’s no question in my mind that it hurt the credibility of the president’s word when this occurred. A president’s word is a big thing, and when the president says things, that’s a big deal,” he said, noting that Obama’s change of heart shook world leaders’ confidence in the president.
Hagel said that the White House held endless meetings on the Syrian crisis, but that the meetings never accomplished very much.
“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,” he said. “We seemed to veer away from the big issues. What was our political strategy on Syria?”
Hagel, who opposed “boots on the ground” in Syria, had insisted America needed a diplomatic plan to identify when and how Assad should be removed, if necessary.
Hagel’s comments in June 2014 that ISIS was “beyond anything that we’ve seen” were not well received at the White House, he said.
“I got accused of trying to hype something, overstate something, and make something more than it was,” Hagel said. “I didn’t know all of it, but I knew we were up against something here that we had never seen before. And in many ways, we were not prepared for it.”
Hagel often was on the spot for the failings of the Obama administration. He cited a congressional hearing from September 2014 when he was asked whether the U.S would back rebels fighting Assad if they were in turn attacked…