Last week, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel gave his first extended interview since resigning as Pentagon chief in November 2014. The curated interview with Foreign Policy is worth reading in its entirety, if for nothing else than the insights into how White House officials and staffers micromanaged Department of Defense decisions; Hagel claims that staffers would call generals “asking fifth-level questions that the White House should not be involved in.” (This would not be the first or last White House charged with this degree of oversight.)
However, the most revealing moment of the interview was not an instance of White House micromanagement, but rather indecisiveness. In September 2014, in reaction to the horrific videos of U.S. citizen beheadings released by the self-declared Islamic State, Congress passed legislation mandating that the Pentagon “provide assistance, including training, equipment, supplies, and sustainment, to appropriately vetted elements of the Syrian opposition.” The most critical question regarding this policy decision was not whether the program would be effective—almost immediately nobody inside or outside of the Pentagon thought it would be—but what direct military support the United States would provide to the Pentagon-trained rebels in Syria. As I later wrote, initial, limited support to Syrian rebels could escalate to a Bay of Pigs situation, where the U.S.-backed rebels were easily killed or captured, and subsequently U.S. credibility further eroded.
Astutely recognizing that this question was unresolved as the legislation was passed, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) asked at a Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) hearing on September 16, 2014, “will we repel Bashar Assad’s air assets that will be attacking [the rebels]?” The then-Pentagon chief replied, “Any attack on those that we have trained and who are supporting us, we will help ‘em.” In his recent Foreign Policy interview, Hagel astonishingly admitted that he improvised on the spot and came up with that highly consequential policy declaration on his own. “We had never come down on an answer or a conclusion in the White House. I said what I felt I had to say. I couldn’t say, ‘No.’ Christ, every ally would have walked away from us in the Middle East.”
If this is actually what happened, it is an extraordinary case of strategic negligence by the White House. Whether and to what extent the United States would provide direct military support to the Syrian rebels who the Pentagon overtly trained and equipped was a major component of the anti-Islamic State strategy that President Obama announced just six days earlier. Either Obama had not personally decided before he made his speech or he had left it unresolved or unclear by the time Hagel and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey testified before the SASC. Whether due to negligence or neglect, this was not a policy declaration that any secretary of defense should have made up on the spot. It is one thing for the White House to consciously leave matters unresolved publicly to retain flexibility as a situation unfolds, but this instance of inadequate policy coordination and indecisiveness suggests that the Obama administration had not even made a decision internally. This is another damning anecdote that reflects on the Obama administration’s poorly conceived and implemented approach to the Syrian civil war and rise of the Islamic State.