Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel criticized the administration of President Barack Obama for its failure to develop a clear strategy on Syria in the face of escalating violence and a severe humanitarian catastrophe, in an interview with Foreign Policy published on Friday.
Hagel revealed that in August 2013, after Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad violated Obama’s “red line” by using chemical weapons on civilians in a suburb of Damascus, American forces were ready to launch attacks on Syria. The president, however, opted to pursue a diplomatic path and ordered Hagel to call off the planned operation. “There’s no question in my mind that it hurt the credibility of the president’s word when this occurred,” Hagel said.
Hagel was once again struck by the administration’s lack of strategy in September 2014, when Sen. John McCain (R – Ariz.) asked him whether the United States was willing to protect the anti-Assad forces it was backing if they were attacked. According to Hagel, the White House had been considering that question for weeks, but had yet to reach a decision. Hagel chose to tell McCain that the U.S. was prepared to assist the rebels, explaining that had he not given this assurance, “every ally would have walked away from us in the Middle East.” The White House’s failure to issue a clear statement to this “damn crucial question” was a “glaring” omission, he added.
Hagel claimed that when he raised these concerns a month later in a memo to the White House, his suggestions were not well-received. “I was saying, ‘We’re not getting to where we need to be,'” he explained. “I’m getting this from all of my colleagues around the world. All of my counterparts are coming up to me at NATO meetings and everywhere, saying, ‘What are you doing? Where is this going?’”
In addition to faulting the administration for lacking a coherent policy on Syria, Hagel criticized the White House for often interfering with the workings of the Department of Defense, a similar to complaint to those made by former defense secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta.
Although he doesn’t currently advocate pursuing a more aggressive military campaign against ISIS, last year at a press briefing Hagel described the terror group as a threat “beyond anything we’ve seen.” At the same event, he also called Assad “a central part of the problem” in the Middle East.
Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry expressed a similar sentiment when he observed that Assad, who is backed by Iran, “cut his own deal” with ISIS and characterized the relationship between the dictator and terror group as “symbiotic.”