Now, a little over a year later, Hagel is swinging back. In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine published Friday, he said he remains puzzled why White House officials tried to “destroy” him personally in his last days in office, adding that he was convinced the United States had no viable strategy in Syria and was particularly frustrated with National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who he said would hold meetings and focus on “nit-picky” details.
“I eventually got to the point where I told Susan Rice that I wasn’t going to spend more than two hours in these meetings,” Hagel told Foreign Policy. “Some of them would go four hours.”
Hagel said the administration struggled with how to handle Syria — hardly a surprise, given the way Obama said in August 2012 that it would be a “red line” for the United States if Syria moved or used its chemical weapons stockpiles, but did not intervene militarily the following year when Syria did so. Hagel said that hurt Obama’s credibility, even if declared stockpiles eventually were removed through an agreement reached with Damascus.
“Whether it was the right decision or not, history will determine that,” Hagel told Foreign Policy. “There’s no question in my mind that it hurt the credibility of the president’s word when this occurred.”
The White House declined to comment on the article. However, an administration official disagreed anonymously with many assertions in Hagel’s interview. Waiting before launching cruise missiles provided a window for the chemical weapons agreement reached, the official said.
Hagel is far from the first former Pentagon chief in Obama’s administration to later criticize the president and his staff. But he just might be the most unlikely. A former Republican senator from Nebraska, he saw eye-to-eye with Obama on many national security issues before he was nominated. Like Obama, he also was a strong critic of President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq — one of the first in the Republican Party.
The two men also still have a friendly relationship, Hagel told Foreign Policy. Nonetheless, he just took several large steps down the same road as Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, who preceded Hagel at the Pentagon and later laid out their grievances in memoirs written after they left office.
Gates, who served for both President George W. Bush and Obama, wrote in a book released early last year that he was “seething” and “running out of patience with on multiple fronts” with the administration. All too often, he wrote, “suspicion and distrust of senior military officers by senior White House officials — including the president and vice president — became a big problem for me as I tried to manage the relationship between the commander in chief and his military leaders.”
Panetta followed last fall with his own book, saying Obama 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.” In an interview promoting the book, he added that the president had “kind of lost his way” and was partly to blame for the collapse of the Iraqi government last year because he didn’t press harder to keep American troops in the country in 2011, ahead of a complete military withdrawal.
Hagel, for his part, told Foreign Policy that he got “the hell beat out of him” figuratively at the White House for delaying in signing transfer orders to release detainees from the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, when he had concerns about the individuals involved. He also said he felt micro-managed — something that Gates, Panetta and other defense officials have all expressed.
“There is a danger in all of this,” Hagel told Foreign Policy, referring to White House micromanagement and the administration’s expanding national security staff. “This is about governance; this isn’t about political optics. It’s about making the country run and function, and trying to stay ahead of the dangers and the threats you see coming.”