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. 21chemical 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.
“Whether it was the right decision or not, history will determine that,” Hagel told Foreign Policy in a two-hour interview, his first extensive public comments since he was forced out of his position in February.
“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 suddenabout-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, now that time has passed and he’s willing to discuss his tenure in office, cited the episode as an example of a White House that has struggled to formulate a coherent policy on Syria, holding interminable meetings that would often end without a decision, even as conditions on the ground worsened and the death toll grew steadily higher.
The 69-year-old former Nebraska senator and Vietnam War veteran, speaking for the first time about his treatment by the Obama administration, said the Pentagon was subject to debilitating meddling and micromanagement by the White House — echoing criticism made by his predecessors, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta.
Looking back on his tenure, Hagel said in the Dec. 10 interview 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 advisor, Susan Rice, and some of her staff. Hagel’s former aides, and former White House officials, say the defense secretary frequently butted heads with Rice over Syria policy and the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo.
The former Pentagon chief offers a view from inside an administration that was caught flat-footed by the multi-sided conflict in Syria and by the subsequent onslaught of the Islamic State. His account describes an administration that lacked a clear strategy on Syria during his time in office and suggests that it may not have one anytime soon — despite the mounting carnage and waves of refugees.
The White House declined to comment for this story after being told about Hagel’s comments regarding the fallout from Obama calling off strikes against Damascus, the absence of a clear policy on Syria, and his treatment by the administration.
But a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the president was not ready to go forward with the military operation in 2013 without consulting Congress first and it endorsing his decision. And the final outcome of Obama’s decision opened the way for a diplomatic deal brokered by Russia that saw the Assad regime hand over its declared chemical weapons stockpiles. “The end result of all this is a Syria that’s free of its chemical weapons program,” the official told FP.
The senior official also insisted the president has a clear strategy to defeat the Islamic State, relying on U.S.-led air power and the training of local forces while pushing for a diplomatic bid to end the civil war in Syria and negotiate Assad’s exit.
Appointed to shift the Pentagon to a peacetime footing and oversee tough budget cuts, Hagel ended up having to contend with Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and a new war in the Middle East after he entered office in February 2013.
And inside the Defense Department, he faced a series of crises: automatic budget cuts and a government shutdown that threw the Pentagon’s budget into chaos; a shooting rampage at the Washington Navy Yard facility that left 12 people dead; a spate of sexual assault cases in the military; and a cheating scandal by nuclear missile crews.
As defense secretary, Hagel carried out the administration’s policies dutifully without missteps. But his meandering public comments seemed to strike the wrong note at a moment of upheaval. And if Hagel had no major mistakes, he also had no major accomplishments; during the height of then-Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Hagel’s aides boasted about the dozens of times the U.S. defense chief was speaking to his Egyptian counterpart and touted Hagel as the administration’s main conduit to Cairo. Left unsaid was that Sisi ignored Hagel’s entreaties and continued his brutal campaign to repress the group.
Hagel’s biggest hurdle, though, was that he was never fully embraced by Obama’s tight inner circle.
Even before he started the job, Hagel had been crippled by a bruising and unusually partisan Senate confirmation hearing in which many of his former Republican colleagues denounced him as unfit for office, painting him as hostile to Israel and weak on Iran.
A few Republicans had warned him in advance that they would have to “rough him up” at the hearing because of their dissatisfaction with the president, Hagel said. And conservative websites had painted him as “anti-Semitic” before the hearing began.
But the level of vitriol at the hearing — from lawmakers whom he had long worked with and even raised money for — came as a shock to Hagel.
More than one senator took Hagel’s comments out of context or simply misquoted him. During the 2006 Lebanon War, Hagel had called for an end to the “sickening slaughter” carried out by both sides, but Republican lawmakers wrongly accused him of singling out Israel.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), now a leading Republican contender for the White House, accused Hagel of possibly receiving speaking fees from “extreme or radical groups” but offered up no evidence.
“It is at a minimum relevant to know if that $200,000 that he deposited in his bank account came directly from Saudi Arabia, came directly from North Korea,” said Cruz, in a performance that some commentators compared to aJoe McCarthy-style smear.
Hagel looked taken aback but chose not to push back against the barrage.
“I was stunned at the whole thing,” Hagel told FP.
At one point Hagel misstated the president’s policy on Iran, saying the aim was to “contain” Tehran.
In the face of stiff opposition from Republicans, the former senator told the White House he was ready to withdraw as the nominee, “because I said don’t want to take the president nor the country through this.”
Obama, Vice President Joe Biden — an old friend from his time in the Senate — and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough all called and encouraged him to hold steady. But some officials did not rally to his side.
“I know not everyone in the White House was that supportive,” he said, without elaborating.
After a filibuster from fellow Republicans, an unprecedented move for a defense secretary’s nomination, Hagel was confirmed in a narrow 58-to-41vote that was mostly along party lines. Only four Republicans voted in favor. Afterward, Hagel said, some Republican senators privately apologized to him for their attacks.
For Hagel, the bitter confirmation fight illustrated the new hyperpartisan, take-no-prisoners brand of politics that had taken over Washington. And it served as yet another reminder that the moderate wing of the Republican Party he represented had virtually vanished. Hagel sees himself as a Republican in the tradition of former President George H.W. Bush and ex-National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, sober-minded pragmatists favoring a foreign policy driven by national interests and realpolitik. But that stream has “gotten thinner and thinner,” Hagel said.
“I’m not sure if you asked people, ‘What is the Republican Party?’ they could give you an answer,” Hagel said.
When Hagel was offered the job of defense secretary after Obama’s re-election in 2012, a position that he said he never asked or lobbied for, his only request was that he be given access to the president.
Once he was in office, Hagel’s request was generally granted. But he sometimes found that access to the president did not necessarily mean a one-on-one meeting in the Oval Office.
“There were times that I had called over and asked to have a private meeting with the president, and when I showed up, there were others in the room,” he said.
Read more: foreignpolicy.com