Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave an interview to Foreign Policy, billed as his first public interview since he was forced out of office in February. Hagel said the White House sought to personally “destroy” him during his final days.
Hagel also said President Obama has no strategy for Syria, no credibility with world leaders, and no real understanding of how the Pentagon works, despite an insatiable urge to micro-manage it.
“They already had my resignation, so what was the point of just continuing to try to destroy me?” Hagel asked, recalling how there were “certain people just really vilifying [him] in a gutless, off-the-record kind of way.”
Hagel said he was “mystified” by how the White House treated him, although Foreign Policy surmises it had to do with a clash between Hagel and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.
“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,” FP writes.
It would be a mistake to blame Rice entirely for Hagel’s treatment, though. This is a famously vindictive President and administration, deeply invested in the idea of personal destruction and discrediting critics. They wanted to make sure Hagel would have a hard time dishing dirt to the media after he left, so they launched a preemptive strike to set him up as a bitter mediocrity with axes to grind. That also positioned him nicely for use as one of the many scapegoats for Obama’s foreign policy failures. Hagel should have seen all this coming, since one of the major reasons he got the job was to serve as a nominally Republican punching bag for anger over Obama’s military budget cuts.
Hagel is dishing now, and part of his criticism tracks with complaints of Pentagon micro-management and political interference from his predecessors, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, as well as former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey. Hagel complained about White House staffers pestering generals with “fifth-level questions” they should not have been involved in, layers of bureaucracy piling up at the National Security Council, and political concerns taking priority over military efficiency.
Hagel said he was afraid to speak his mind at the excessively numerous, long, and large meetings held by the White House because “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 he was often surprised to arrive at “private” meetings with President Obama, only to find “others in the room.”
Much of the former Defense Secretary’s critique relates to the image of fecklessness, indecisiveness, ignorance, and dishonesty that Obama’s foreign policy has projected to the rest of the world. He portrayed the “red line” debacle in Syria as a particularly devastating example; Obama and his die-hard supporters are the only people in the world who think he was able to back down from his chemical-weapons bluster without inflicting severe damage on American credibility.
(The most surreal part of the Foreign Policy piece is when a nameless administration official tried to stick up for President Obama’s handling of Syria by claiming he paved the way for Russia to work out a diplomatic arrangement with the Assad regime, and “the end result” was “a Syria that’s free of its chemical weapons program.” Back here in the real world, there are still chemical weapons deployments in Syria.)
“There’s no question in my mind that it hurt the credibility of the president’s word when this occurred,” Hagel said of the chemical-weapons climbdown by Obama, adding that foreign leaders still tell him they were stunned and shaken that President Obama broke his word. Along the same lines, he said President Obama’s tepid support for U.S.-aligned Syrian rebels, and refusal to commit to defending them against the Assad regime (and later Russian airstrikes), left prospective allies around the world wondering if teaming up with Obama’s America was a wise move.
The White House was angry with Hagel for (accurately) undercutting its narrative about the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) being an irrelevant junior varsity terrorist squad and for pointing out the administration had nothing resembling a coherent policy on Syria, ISIS, or Russian aggression in Ukraine. However, he said his worst conflict with the White House came over President Obama’s mad drive to close Guantánamo Bay at all costs. Given authority by Congress to approve inmate transfers, Hagel was hesitant to approve some that President Obama wanted, and refused others, which infuriated the White House.
“It got pretty bad, pretty brutal. I’d get the hell beat out of me all the time on this at the White House,” said Hagel, who maintained that he agreed with the notion of closing Gitmo, but wanted to do it more slowly and carefully.
Also pretty bad and brutal: President Obama’s freed Guantánamo detainees have turned up on the battlefield again. The latest example is Ibrahim al-Qosi, Osama bin Laden’s cook, chauffeur, and bookkeeper, who just popped up in a new al-Qaeda video. Of course, the same White House that does not think President Obama’s blunders make America look bad was obsessed with the idea that, as Foreign Policy puts it, “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.”
Gitmo was the “last straw that led to Hagel having to step down,” although FP ironically notes that his successor, Ashton Carter, is approving considerably fewer detainee transfers than Hagel did.
Hagel throws some punches at congressional Republicans in his Foreign Policy interview, as well, claiming that much of their opposition to his confirmation was partisan political theater, and some of them privately contacted him to apologize afterward.
FP’s account of his bitter confirmation hearing leaves up the most substantive criticisms leveled against Hagel, which involved specific criticisms of his past positions, including opposition to sanctions against Iran and support for negotiations with anti-Israel terror groups like Hamas, in addition to concerns about his overall qualifications–his performance during those confirmation hearings was unquestionably dismal–and fears that he would be used in precisely the way he was: as a bipartisan fall guy for President Obama’s agenda.
Foreign Policy concludes its interview with Hagel by noting that he shares President Obama’s skepticism about using military force, and continues to give 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.”