“Debilitating meddling and micromanagement by the White House”

A piece in Foreign Policy notes how Obama tried to destroy Chuck Hagel,  “Jetlagged 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”.

The report adds “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”.

The report notes that “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”.

The piece adds that Hagel “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 piece fairly notes that “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”.

The piece goes on to mention that decisions were not made “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”.

Interestingly the piece mentions that “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”.

The next section delves into the White House micromanaging DoD, “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 centralised 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”.

On the issue of Russian actions in Crimea, the author makes the point that “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”.

Guantánamo wars

On the administration’s attempts to close Gitmo it notes “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”.

Interestingly the piece adds “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”.

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