(Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
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. 21 chemical 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 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, 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 a Joe 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-41 vote 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.
While Hagel preferred smaller meetings and one-on-one phone calls, the White House often summoned him to large Situation Room sessions with last-minute agendas sent out overnight or on the morning of the meeting.
The White House’s policy deliberations on Syria and other issues run by Rice and her deputies seemed to lead nowhere, according to Hagel.
“For one thing, there were way too many meetings. The meetings were not productive,” Hagel said. “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.”
At larger White House meetings, with some staffers in the room he did not even know, Hagel was reluctant to speak at length, fearing his stance would find its way into media reports. “The more people you have in a room, the more possibilities there are for self-serving leaks to shape and influence decisions in the press,” he said.
Instead, Hagel preferred to convey his views in weekly meetings he and then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey had with the president or in phone calls and meetings with Rice, Biden, or Secretary of State John Kerry.
In contrast, national security meetings led by the president were efficient and focused, with no time wasted on tangents, he said.
“We’d get in and get out,” Hagel said. “I eventually got to the point where I told Susan Rice that I wasn’t going to spend more than two hours in these meetings. Some of them would go four hours.”
But the same senior administration official defended the long National Security Council meetings, saying their length was only natural given the complexity of the security challenges facing the country: “It speaks to the rigorous policy process that we run.”
Hagel, however, said there was too much time spent on “nit-picky, small things in the weeds,” while larger questions were ignored. “We seemed to veer away from the big issues. What was our political strategy on Syria?”
While Hagel agreed with Obama’s reluctance to deploy a large ground force to Syria or Iraq, he wanted the administration to hammer out a plan for a diplomatic settlement in Syria and to clarify whether Assad needed to go and under what circumstances, he said.
While the White House sought to stay out of the conflict in Syria, the Islamic State’s lightning advance into northern Iraq in June 2014 — with Baghdad’s army collapsing in retreat — came as a “jolt” to the administration, Hagel said.
Asked at a press conference in August of that year about the nature of the threat posed by the Islamic State, Hagel told reporters that “this is beyond anything that we’ve seen.” He cited the group’s military skill, financial resources, and adept online propaganda as an unprecedented danger that surpassed previous terrorist organizations.
Some administration officials were not happy with Hagel’s description, and “I got some criticism from the White House,” he said.
But events have vindicated his remarks, he said.
“Then 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.”
For Hagel, the administration’s indecision over how to address the conflict in Syria was driven home in a congressional hearing in September 2014, when he was grilled by senators about the administration’s plans to build a force of rebel fighters to take on the Islamic State.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), an outspoken critic of the White House’s anti-Islamic State strategy, asked Hagel if the administration would come to the aid of U.S.-backed rebels if they were attacked by the Assad regime. The administration had debated that pivotal question for weeks but had not made a decision, and Hagel was forced to improvise.
“We had never come down on an answer or a conclusion in the White House,” Hagel told FP. “I said what I felt what I had to say. I couldn’t say, ‘No.’ Christ, every ally would have walked away from us in the Middle East.”
McCain pressed him, and Hagel told the lawmakers: “Any attack on those that we have trained who are supporting us, we will help them.”
But the question remained a “glaring” omission in the administration’s policy that he raised in meetings afterward. “Are we going to support our guys or not support our guys?” Hagel told FP. “It’s a damn crucial question.”
Asked for comment this week, the senior administration official rejected Hagel’s portrayal as misleading and said the Defense Department had a leading role in setting up the training program and could have addressed any shortcomings that arose.
A month later, with his concerns mounting about the absence of an overarching policy on Syria and the fight against the Islamic State, Hagel wrote a two-page memo to Rice and Kerry — and copied the president — saying the administration needed to decide on its approach to the conflict in Syria and its stance toward the Assad regime. The memo argued that “we don’t have a policy,” Hagel told FP.
“I was saying, ‘We’re not getting to where we need to be,‘” he said, “because 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?’”
But Hagel said the memo — which was not well-received by the White House — was meant only as an appeal to come up with a coherent way forward and did not attempt to dictate policy.
“In the memo, I wasn’t blaming anybody. Hell, I was part of the National Security Council,” Hagel said.
Since leaving office last February, Hagel said he has not seen a full strategy on Syria materialize.
“The administration is still struggling with a political strategy, but Secretary Kerry is making some progress toward the right strategy,” Hagel said, citing recent talks with Russia, Iran, and several Arab governments.
Although Hagel opposes a major escalation of the military campaign against the Islamic State, his criticisms of the administration will almost certainly feed a Republican critique, led by McCain, that the Obama administration has been weak and indecisive on the Syrian conflict.
That outcome is an ironic twist for Hagel, whose fierce criticism of President George W. Bush’s administration over the Iraq War — and opposition to the 2007 troop surge — generated lasting resentment among his fellow Republicans, including McCain.
Micromanaging the Pentagon
The White House’s penchant for meddling was a frequent problem, Hagel said. Dempsey complained that White House staffers were calling generals “and asking fifth-level questions that the White House should not be involved in,” he said.
Hagel’s predecessors, Gates and Panetta, as well as Michèle Flournoy, the former No. 3 official at the Pentagon, have all criticized the White House’s centralized decision-making and interference with the workings of the Defense Department.
Hagel said the politically motivated micromanagement, combined with a mushrooming bureaucracy at the National Security Council, raises a real risk for the executive branch — potentially undercutting the proper functioning of the Pentagon and other cabinet offices.
“There is a danger in all of this,” he said. “This is about governance; this isn’t about political optics. It’s about making the country run and function, and trying to stay ahead of the dangers and the threats you see coming.”
Responding to Russia
Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula in March 2014 and its support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine blindsided Washington, and it produced another rift between Hagel and White House officials.
In National Security Council meetings, Hagel said he stressed the importance of avoiding a direct confrontation with Moscow and keeping communication channels open with the Russian military. But he urged the administration to send a clear signal to Moscow — and U.S. allies in Europe — by expediting communications and other gear to the Ukrainian government as it fought against pro-Russian separatists.
“I also made the point that the U.S. should be giving more non-lethal equipment to the Ukrainians than we were, at a much faster pace,” Hagel said. “We had to keep in mind that there was a global leadership optic here. The world, including our NATO partners, was watching to see how we would respond.”
The administration moved too slowly to help Kiev, Hagel said, though he does not believe Washington should have given weapons to the Ukrainians.
“I think we should have done more, could have done more,” he said.
Apart from his impatience with the administration’s drift over Syria, Hagel said some of his biggest clashes with the White House came over the controversial detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
Under a law adopted by Congress, Hagel, as defense secretary, had the ultimate responsibility for approving the transfer of inmates to other countries. And it meant he would bear the blame if a released detainee later took up arms against the United States.
The White House, trying to fulfill Obama’s promise to close the facility that has been condemned by human rights groups as a legal black hole, pressed Hagel to approve transferring inmates to other countries.
But Hagel often refused or delayed signing off on dozens of transfers when he judged the security risk too high, often based on advice inside the Defense Department.
The White House grew deeply frustrated with Hagel over the delays.
“It got pretty bad, pretty brutal,” Hagel said. “I’d get the hell beat out of me all the time on this at the White House. “
Although he had long supported shutting the detention center, Hagel insisted that he would not be rushed into approving transfers. The White House kept pushing, arguing that security concerns had to be weighed against the damage done to America’s image abroad as long as Guantánamo remained open and the ammunition it provided for extremist propaganda.
The arguments over Guantánamo detainees were cited by White House officials as the last straw that led to Hagel having to step down. But during his two years in office, Hagel approved 44 detainee transfers. His successor, Ash Carter, has given the green light to only 15 transfers, according to the Pentagon, citing numbers from Dec. 15. At the current pace, Carter will fall short of the number Hagel approved by the time Obama’s second term ends.
After clashing repeatedly with the White House, Hagel said it was probably inevitable that he would have to step down as Pentagon chief, given the friction that had developed. But he was not prepared for the humiliating way in which he was let go, “with certain people just really vilifying me in a gutless, off-the-record kind of way.”
The White House asked Hagel if he would stay on until a successor was found, and he accepted. But even after he agreed to leave, Hagel said, some White House officials trashed him in anonymous comments to newspapers, claiming he rarely spoke at Situation Room meetings and deferred to Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
“They already had my resignation, so what was the point of just continuing to try to destroy me?” he said.
It was a painful end to a career in which Hagel had gone from success to success. After his 1968 combat tour in Vietnam, where he was decorated with two Purple Hearts, he had served as a Capitol Hill staffer, worked as the deputy administrator for the Veterans Administration under President Ronald Reagan, made his fortune in the early years of the cellphone industry, handily won two terms as a senator for Nebraska, and was at one point considered a potential contender for the White House.
Despite how his Pentagon stint ended, Hagel said he still holds Obama “in high regard.”
“I’ve always had a very good, positive relationship with the president,” he said.
Hagel — who shares with Obama a skepticism about resorting to military force — gives the president high marks for not over-reacting to terrorist threats, for pursuing a strategic “rebalance” toward the Asia-Pacific, and for clinching a landmark agreement with Iran to curtail its nuclear program.
But Hagel remains pained at how his term as Pentagon chief was tarnished by what he views as backstabbing by some in the White House.
“I don’t know what the purpose was. To this day, I’m still mystified by that. But I move forward. I’m proud of my service,” he said.
Still, he added: “I would have preferred that my days as defense secretary not end that way.”
Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images