Two years after the war in Syria had broken out, the Obama administration had still not formulated a coherent policy response to the crisis that has now claimed more than 200,000 lives.
That is according to Obama’s former secretary of defence, Chuck Hagel.
In a blistering interview with Foreign Policy, Hagel described how the administration effectively kicked the can down the road when it came to crafting a decisive strategy to end the war.
“For one thing, there were way too many meetings. The meetings were not productive,” Hagel, who served from 2013-2015, told Foreign Policy on Thursday.
“I don’t think many times we ever actually got to where we needed to be,” Hagel continued, noting that the meetings sometimes went as long as four hours. “We kept kind of deferring the tough decisions. And there were always too many people in the room.”
He added: “We seemed to veer away from the big issues. What was our political strategy on Syria?”
Well into the war’s fifth year, many are still asking that question — and many suspect there never was a political strategy. Hagel’s comments are in line with accounts from other administration officials also present for those marathon meetings on Syria that never seemed to translate into lasting policy decisions.
As The New York Times reported in 2013, Obama seemed uninterested in the subject of Syria “even as the debate about arming the [Syrian] rebels took on a new urgency.”
“Obama rarely voiced strong opinions during senior staff meetings,” The Times reported. “But current and former officials said his body language was telling: he often appeared impatient or disengaged while listening to the debate, sometimes scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry or slouching and chewing gum.”
Indeed, Hagel says he floundered when Congress grilled him on Obama’s plans to arm Syrian rebels fighting against ISIS because the White House had not given him an answer to a fundamental question: If the US-backed rebels were attacked by forces loyal to Assad, would the US be expected to protect them?
“We had never come down on an answer or a conclusion in the White House,” Hagel told FP. “Are we going to support our guys or not support our guys? It’s a damn crucial question.”
‘He never intended to remove Assad’
One position the administration insists it has maintained throughout the nearly five-year conflict is that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “must go.” But even that stance has been muddled as the administration continues to soften its position on Assad’s future.
Since drawing his “red line” under Assad’s use of chemical weapons to kill 1,300 civilians in 2013, Obama has accepted a “limited” role for the dictator in political negotiations over the country’s future. The negotiations are due to begin in January, as long as all parties sign on to a plan brokered by Assad’s biggest ally — Russia.
“Hagel’s interview reaffirms what we already knew about the Obama administration’s policy in Syria,” Tony Badran, a Middle East expert and researcher at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told Business Insider on Friday.
“The US’ Syria policy has always been in the head of one man, and one man only: Barack Obama. No one else has ever really had a say in what happens in Syria,” Badran continued.
“Obama has owned it since day one — and from day one, he never intended to remove Assad.”
That Obama backed away from his own red line in Syria — after announcing to the world that he sought to launch airstrikes against the regime — damaged Obama’s foreign policy credibility immensely, Hagel told Foreign Policy.
“There’s no question in my mind that it hurt the credibility of the president’s word when this occurred,” Hagel said, referring to Obama’s decision to forego military action and accept a Russia-brokered agreement to dispose of Assad’s chemical weapons in 2013.
But Obama’s decision to back away from military action in Syria was less an about-face in his strategy than an indication that his established Middle East policy — which heavily favoured non-intervention — had come full circle.
Haunted by the war in Iraq and the disastrous campaign in Libya and wary of mission creep, Obama has always been deeply ambiguous on the subject of Assad’s removal. Indeed, Hagel told Foreign Policy that he did not know what to tell world leaders when they sought to re-affirm the administration’s commitment to removing Assad after the “red line” fiasco.
“A president’s word is a big thing, and when the president says things, that’s a big deal.”
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