Micah Zenko

Politics, Power, and Preventive Action

Zenko covers the U.S. national security debate and offers insight on developments in international security and conflict prevention.

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Chuck Hagel’s Revealing Insight Into Obama’s Syria Strategy

by Micah Zenko
December 18, 2015

Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel walks during a farewell ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia on January 28, 2015. (Gripas/Reuters) Outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel walks during a farewell ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Virginia on January 28, 2015. (Gripas/Reuters)

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Last week, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave his first extended interview since resigning as Pentagon chief in November 2014. The curated interview with Foreign Policy is worth reading in its entirety, if for nothing else than the insights into how White House officials and staffers micromanaged Department of Defense decisions; Hagel claims that staffers would call generals “asking fifth-level questions that the White House should not be involved in.” (This would not be the first or last White House charged with this degree of oversight.)

However, the most revealing moment of the interview was not an instance of White House micromanagement, but rather indecisiveness. In September 2014, in reaction to the horrific videos of U.S. citizen beheadings released by the self-declared Islamic State, Congress passed legislation mandating that the Pentagon “provide assistance, including training, equipment, supplies, and sustainment, to appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.” The most critical question regarding this policy decision was not whether the program would be effective—almost immediately nobody inside or outside of the Pentagon thought it would be—but what direct military support the United States would provide to the Pentagon-trained rebels in Syria. As I later wrote, initial, limited support to Syrian rebels could escalate to a Bay of Pigs situation, where the U.S.-backed rebels were easily killed or captured, and subsequently U.S. credibility further eroded.

Astutely recognizing that this question was unresolved as the legislation was passed, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) asked at a Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on September 16, 2014, “will we repel Bashar Assad’s air assets that will be attacking [the rebels]?” The then-Pentagon chief replied, “Any attack on those that we have trained and who are supporting us, we will help ‘em.” In his recent Foreign Policy interview, Hagel astonishingly admitted that he improvised on the spot and came up with that highly consequential policy declaration on his own. “We had never come down on an answer or a conclusion in the White House. I said what I felt I had to say. I couldn’t say, ‘No.’ Christ, every ally would have walked away from us in the Middle East.”

If this is actually what happened, it is an extraordinary case of strategic negligence by the White House. Whether and to what extent the United States would provide direct military support to the Syrian rebels who the Pentagon overtly trained and equipped was a major component of the anti-Islamic State strategy that President Obama announced just six days earlier. Either Obama had not personally decided before he made his speech or he had left it unresolved or unclear by the time Hagel and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey testified before the SASC. Whether due to negligence or neglect, this was not a policy declaration that any secretary of defense should have made up on the spot. It is one thing for the White House to consciously leave matters unresolved publicly to retain flexibility as a situation unfolds, but this instance of inadequate policy coordination and indecisiveness suggests that the Obama administration had not even made a decision internally. This is another damning anecdote that reflects on the Obama administration’s poorly conceived and implemented approach to the Syrian civil war and rise of the Islamic State.

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by Betsy

    “Whether due to negligence or neglect, this was not a policy declaration that any secretary of defense should have made up on the spot.”

    Correct. So the president fired him. Case closed.

  • Posted by MyWag

    “However, the most revealing moment of the interview was not an instance of White House micromanagement, but rather indecisiveness.”

    You harange the WH for indecisiveness.

    The most critical question regarding this policy decision was not whether the program would be effective—almost immediately nobody inside or outside of the Pentagon thought it would be—but what direct military support the United States would provide to the Pentagon-trained rebels in Syria.”

    Why no haranging of the Congress for supporting ineffective policy? Could the policy backfire? Is this just to ‘look tough’?

  • Posted by Tyler P Harwell

    Not quite, Betsy.

    We all tend to forget a few things. The train and equip program predates the rise of ISIS. It dates back to President Obama’s June 2013 commencement speech at West Point, when bowing to wide spread pressure, he announced that he would be requesting $500M from Congress for that purpose. At the time, the call was for help for rebels who were fighting the Assad regime. Obama had not previously been eager to provide it. Perhaps he was hoping that Congress would refuse his request. It after all, was for the budget. But in time -and it took some time – the money was approved and appropriated.

    By August of 2014, when ISIS rose to prominence, the Obama administration still had done next to nothing to initiate this program. It had little interest in it, and until recent had spent merely $40M on it.

    The statement referred to as costing Chuck Hagel his job occurred sometime after the beheading of the American that occurred while President Obama was on vacation at Martha’s Vineyard. (@Late August, early September.) That occurred just before the weekend, while all Washington was taking a snooze. The President broke his vacation to make a statement to the press about it that bespoke of no intent to return to Washington, or make any immediate decisions, and then went out to play golf. Over that weekend, Hagel and Martin Dempsey, on their own initiative, scheduled a news conference on the subject at the Pentagon, at which the jointly stated that THE UNITED STATES WAS AT WAR WITH ISIS AND WOULD BE RESPONDING ACCORDINGLY TO THIS ATROCITY.

    It is this press conference that cost Chuck Hagel his job. He was not authorized to make it by the White House, and the following week, I will wager, he was told by Benjamin Rhodes not to get out in front of the President on the subject.

    He lingered on in office long enough for everyone to forget about the incident, and to give the White House enough time to come up for another reason for telling him to leave; then he was called in for a meeting with the President at which he was told to resign.

    Martin Dempsey was left to serve out is term. The President began the train and equip program supposedly in earnest, but deliberately hobbled it with a requirement for all participants to forswear hostilities against the regime. The purpose then changed, and only with that condition was the President willing to underwrite it.

    That was not the only limitation. The President was never behind the program and unwilling to make it succeed. The Dempsey-Hagel news conference was in effect, an attempted palace coup. Hagel was cut out of the loop immediately, and given nothing more to say on the subject by the White House when called shortly thereafter to appear before Congress. He was left hanging in the breeze, but nevertheless called by duty to say what he did, if only to lay down cover for his boss.

    That, Betsy, is why the President fired the SECDEF.

    Very truly yours, Tyler.

  • Posted by Steven

    I thought the Foreign Policy interview was quite interesting, furthermore, I would reccomend Seymour Hersh’s recent article on divergent U.S. Syria policy options amongst government leaders. The article, accurate or not, will make you think at least about the difference of opinions in the executive branch of the Obama administration at a time when investigative journalism is declining just as the honorable Chuck Hagel made you think while reflecting on his tenure.

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