A Problem Beyond Mr. Hagel

An important article by the Editorial Board of the New York Times


Chuck Hagel, who was pressured to resign on Monday, was not a strong defense secretary and, after less than two years, appeared to have lost President Obama’s confidence.

 
But he was not the core of the Obama administration’s military problem. That lies with the president and a national security policy that has too often been incoherent and shifting at a time of mounting international challenges, especially in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

 
A respected and decorated Vietnam veteran, Mr. Hagel is one of a fading breed of moderate Republicans whose independence and past willingness to challenge the Republican stance on Iraq, sanctions on Iran and other issues was admirable. There was reason to hope that he would play a vigorous role in providing unvarnished advice to Mr. Obama.

 
But Mr. Hagel never recovered from his bruising Senate confirmation hearing in February 2013, in which he proved incapable of defending his views against vehement opponents. Once confirmed, he continued to have difficulty communicating the Obama administration’s views and was often eclipsed in explaining American military strategy by Secretary of State John Kerry and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

 
A substantial part of the problem with Mr. Hagel’s performance is that the mission changed after his appointment. He was selected to oversee a shift to a peacetime military and reduced defense spending. To his credit, Mr. Hagel was committed to carrying out Mr. Obama’s policy of greater American military, diplomatic and economic engagement in Asia and spent considerable time focused on that priority.

 
But the United States is now back at war in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, and Mr. Obama apparently decided that he could no longer depend on Mr. Hagel to lead these fights, which had provoked sharp debates within the administration. One factor may have been a memo Mr. Hagel sent to the White House in which he criticized the administration’s Syria policy for failing to connect the campaign against the Islamic State to a broader struggle against President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

 
Apart from these differences, Mr. Hagel was not well served by the fact that national security policy is tightly controlled by the White House, with Mr. Obama relying on a small group of aides, including Susan Rice, the national security adviser, for counsel. That process has often resulted in delayed and contradictory signals about Mr. Obama’s foreign policy agenda and the military strategies needed to carry it out. And, of course, all of this has come in for withering criticism from Republicans and many Democrats as well.

 
Such confusion made Mr. Hagel’s job doubly hard, and it will pose a challenge to his successor. Though Mr. Obama has said he was committed to ending American involvement in wars, his approach in Iraq and Syria has been muddled. When he launched airstrikes against the Islamic State, which is also known as ISIS and ISIL, he said the airstrikes would have to be backed up by local ground troops, not American ground forces, though he has increased the American trainers in Iraq to 3,000. In Syria, there is no apparent prospect of quickly training a sufficient number of rebels to support American strikes there.

 
Although the administration has insisted its target in Syria is ISIS, Turkish officials have suggested that the United States is reconsidering whether to go after Mr. Assad, which could significantly widen the conflict. In the meantime, by claiming he has full authority to carry out military action against ISIS, Mr. Obama has given Congress an excuse not to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to declare war.

 
Mr. Obama has also been backtracking on Afghanistan. Despite repeated assurances that the American combat role would end by the end of this year, Mr. Obama is authorizing a broader role for 9,800 American troops who will remain in that country after December, including allowing them to be involved in direct combat against the Taliban.

 
A more aggressive defense secretary who has Mr. Obama’s full confidence and ear may be able to better deal with chaos and war on these fronts. But, ultimately, it is Mr. Obama who will have to set the course with a more coherent strategy.

 
Source: The New York Times / Nov. 24, 2014

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