WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s global standing suffered after he backed down from his threat of military strikes against Syria even after President Bashar al-Assad crossed the “red line” of using chemical weapons, former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in an interview with Foreign Policy published Friday.
“Whether it was the right decision or not, history will determine that,” the publication quoted Hagel as saying. “There’s no question in my mind that it hurt the credibility of the president’s word when this occurred.”
Hagel said he heard from his counterparts in other countries who told him their confidence in Obama was shaken as a result of his reversal on Syria in August 2013. In fact, Hagel said, he still hears the complaints.
“A president’s word is a big thing, and when the president says things, that’s a big deal,” Hagel told the publication.
The interview came many months after Hagel hung it up as defense secretary.
In the article, he recounts clashes with other members of President Barack Obama’s national security team as he said he pushed for a more coherent Syria policy while White House aides tried to micromanage the Pentagon and pressure him to accelerate the transfer of detainees out of the Guantanamo Bay facility.
The tension between Hagel and other members of the national security team, particularly national security adviser Susan Rice, was hardly a secret, even before he announced his resignation on Nov. 24, 2014.
Word of a memo in which Hagel bluntly criticized the administration’s Syria policy was leaked to the press. Later, when he announced his resignation, most accounts indicated that he had been forced out.
But Hagel himself has refrained from publicly delving into those conflicts — until now.
The White House declined to comment on Hagel’s characterizations of his interactions with officials there.
Speaking at a press conference Friday, Obama talked about progress in the fight against Islamic State militants, often referred to as ISIS or ISIL.
He noted that his strategy includes pushing for a political transition in Syria.
“So that’s going to continue to be a top priority for us, moving aggressively on the military track and not letting ISIL take a breath, and pounding away at them with our special forces and our airstrikes, and the training and advising of partners who can go after them,” Obama said. “But we also have to keep very aggressive on this diplomatic track in order for us to bring countries together.”
Also in the article:
— Hagel said he was stunned at the hostile reception he received from Republican senators during his confirmation hearing in January 2013 and told the White House he was ready to withdraw his nomination, but Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough talked him into pressing forward.
— Hagel refused or delayed approving transfers of Gitmo detainees out of security concerns, which prompted heavy pushback from the White House. “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.” Obama said Friday that the administration is continuing to chip away at transferring detainees and that he hopes Congress will work with him on a plan to close the facility.
— Hagel says he still respects Obama and has a good relationship with him but regrets the way his tenure ended and how some White House staffers went after him with anonymous quotes, even after he had resigned. “I don’t know what the purpose was. To this day, I’m still mystified by that,” Hagel told the publication. “But I move forward. I’m proud of my service.”