Barack Obama had no greater fan than Chuck Hagel. The former Nebraska senator saw his former Senate colleague as a kindred spirit on foreign policy that shared his views on the purposes and the exercise of American power abroad as well as a lack of enthusiasm for the U.S. alliance with Israel. Though nominally a Republican, Hagel endorsed Obama twice for president and was a natural, albeit unfortunate, choice to be secretary of defense at the start of the president’s second term. But Hagel was dumped after less than two years in office and is only now coming clean about what was wrong with the administration he joined. In a Foreign Policy magazine interview published on Friday Hagel spoke about the origins of the current Middle East crisis and put the blame firmly on the man he helped put in the White House. Whatever one may think about Hagel — and the former secretary has much to account for in terms of his own mistakes — when added to the previous testimonies of his predecessors Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, it creates a damning indictment of a the president’s conduct of foreign and defense policy.
There’s much in the Foreign Policy piece that doesn’t deserve much attention. Hagel’s self-serving story about his disastrous confirmation hearings and shaky record don’t stand up to scrutiny. The charges that he was hostile to Israel and favored a weak stand against Iran’s nuclear program were factual, not smears. If White House officials ultimately came to view him as a liability, perhaps it was in part because they understood that the president had foisted an unsuitable choice on the country. Hagel’s criticisms in the piece of the Republican Party that he abandoned also ring false when placed in the context of the failures of the Democratic president he loyally backed.
But leaving his grudges against fellow Republicans and administration rivals aside, Hagel’s comments about administration policy on Syria go right to the heart of the current crisis in the Middle East.
In 2013, before ISIS gobbled up much of Syria and Iraq, Barack Obama was on the verge of taking action against the Bashar Assad regime. Having said that Assad’s use of chemical weapons was a “red line” that would trigger a U.S. military response, the president backed down after the Syrian dictator did just that. The feckless retreat helped ensure that the situation in Syria would continue to unravel. But, as Hagel points out, the damage goes deeper than just a bad policy decision.
“There’s no question in my mind that it hurt the credibility of the president’s word when this occurred.”
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 doesn’t entirely connect the dots between the collapse of U.S. credibility due to Obama’s humiliating retreat and the rise of ISIS and the consequent lack of confidence in the administration’s policy on terrorism. But his willingness to speak openly about this fiasco does shed light on how this came about.
Just as important in terms of an assessment of what’s wrong with the crisis in U.S. defense policy that has generated such fear among the American people are Hagel’s comments about how decisions are made in the Obama White House. As Gates and Panetta have already told us, this president and his staff micromanage defense policy in a way that undermines the conduct of U.S military affairs in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. This is a president that doesn’t listen to advice that he doesn’t like. Those who will not toady to him or bring up inconvenient facts about the mistakes he’s making are, sooner or later, shown to the exit whether it comes from an unimpressive figure like Hagel or better men such as Gates and Panetta.
It’s hard to entirely blame the White House staff for continuing to see Hagel as the man who looked like a deer in the headlights when testifying before the Senate in 2013. Yet they should have listened to Hagel when he pointed out the security implications of the president’s rush to transfer terrorists from Guantanamo Bay to the United States to the president’s dismay.
But Hagel’s unforgivable sin in an administration where loyalty to dear leader is always prized higher than competence was to notice the cost of a complete lack of a strategy to deal with the mess in Syria. Obama spent more than two years on dithering about Syria even before the “red line” fiasco. That foolish insistence on leading from behind allowed the situation there to fester leading to more lost lives as Assad, with the assistance of his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies, slaughtered his own people. We’ll never know for sure what an early intervention would have led to, but we know what happened as a result of Obama’s hesitation, which may have been motivated in part by a desire to curry favor with Iran. ISIS was transformed from the terror “JV team” into what is truly an Islamic State caliphate that endangers U.S. security as well as the region.
The lack of credibility that Hagel speaks of is why Obama has failed to assemble a strong Arab coalition to fight ISIS. And Obama’s micromanaging and half-hearted approach to the conflict — which was amply illustrated in an Obama presser at the Pentagon this past week that sounded like something that Lyndon Johnson would have said in defense of his failed Vietnam War policies – explains why no one outside of the president’s inner circle and Hillary Clinton believes we have a strategy that can defeat the terrorists.
Yet rather than having the courage to listen to his critics or even to advisers who weren’t willing to tell him what he wanted to hear like Gates, Panetta and, to some extent, Hagel, President Obama continues to act as if he is incapable of error. A better man might be capable of owning his failures and consider the alternatives to a policy that still lacks a coherent strategy on Syria or a path to victory against ISIS. But Barack Obama is not such a man.
A president’s word is a “big thing.” So is the absence of a war-winning strategy in a life and death struggle against a rising tide of Islamist terror. Those who promise to double down on the current failure as Hillary Clinton did last night at the Democratic presidential debate, are merely asking us to accept more of the same. Though Chuck Hagel was very much part of the problem, his account of life inside the Obama bubble illustrates why most Americans have no faith in this president when it comes to terrorism.