President Obama’s foreign policy has always been a murky mess. But the reason why has always been crystal clear: He views every decision through a political lens rather than a policy one. He rode into the White House on a promise to end the wars in the Middle East and every move he’s made since has been based on that commitment, regardless of the facts on the ground or the unintended (but predictable) consequences that arose.
Unsurprisingly, this has led to a tense relationships with his defense secretaries, who didn’t have the luxury of philosophical or political debates.
Chuck Hagel, who resigned as defense secretary last year, is the latest to express his concerns about President Obama’s foreign policy leadership. In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine Hagel expresses his frustration with the president’s decision-making process and his amazement at the White House’s attempt to undermine him.
In the interview Hagel describes the torturous process of waffling and indecision about Syria that ended up making our allies question our commitment and our enemies doubt our resolve. And it began with Obama’s now-infamous “red line” comments, which threatened Syrian President Bashar al Assad with grave consequences if he used chemical weapons against his own people. Assad promptly used mustard gas on villagers. Obama did nothing.
“Whether it was the right decision or not, history will determine that,” Hagel said. “There’s no question in my mind that it hurt the credibility of the president’s word when this occurred.”
“A president’s word is a big thing, and when the president says things, that’s a big deal,” he continued.
The event was just the most prominent outgrowth of the White House’s nonexistent Syrian policy, which was causing angst among the United State’s international allies and creating a vacuum for ISIS to spread. Foreign Policy’s Dan de Luce reports:
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 todecide 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?’”
Unsurprisingly, rather than take the internal memo as constructive criticism that should guide decisionmaking, the White House bristled, signaling the beginning of the end for Hagel. This is far from the first time that Pentagon officials have publicly discussed the White House’s insensitivity to criticism and bureaucratic micromanagement by President Obama’s inner staff. Indeed, all of Hagel’s predecessors have expressed similar complaints.
Robert Gates, Obama’s first Secretary of Defense, said he was offended by the “controlling nature of the Obama White House, and its determination to take credit for every good thing that happened while giving none to the career folks in the trenches.” He said that this administration was “by far the most centralized and controlling” of any he had seen “since Richard Nixon.” And Gates chided the White House for breaking promises, alleging that “agreements with the Obama White House were good for only as long as they were politically convenient.”
Gate’s successor in the role, Leon Panetta, was similarly critical of Obama’s leadership style. Panetta argued that the president had a “frustrating reticence to engage his opponents and rally support for his cause” and too frequently “relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader.” This led to some troubling situations. For instance, Obama, Gates wrote, held out “hope that perhaps others in the world could step up to the plate and take on these issues,” which ultimately led to a “mixed message, not only to Assad, not only to the Syrians, but to the world.”
Three defense secretaries and three disturbing critiques of a controlling, politically driven, and reactive White House. If only this were baseball Obama would be out. Instead, it’s foreign policy, where tactical mistakes often lead to war and death.