Hagel Critiques Obama’s Policies on Syria and Russia

Secretary of Defense (at the time) Chuck Hagel, April 4, 2013[At the time Secretary of Defence Chuck] Hagel wrote a two-page memo to [National Security Advisor Susan] Rice and [Secretary of State John] Kerry — and copied the president — saying the administration needed to decide 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?'”

But Hagel said the memo — which was not well-received by the White House — was meant only as an appeal to come up with a coherent way forward and did not attempt to dictate policy.

“In the memo, I wasn’t blaming anybody. Hell, I was part of the National Security Council,” Hagel said.

Since leaving office last February, Hagel said he has not seen a full strategy on Syria materialize.

“The administration is still struggling with a political strategy, but Secretary Kerry is making some progress toward the right strategy,” Hagel said, citing recent talks with Russia, Iran, and several Arab governments….

Russia’s seizure of the Crimean peninsula in March 2014 and its support for pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine blindsided Washington, and it produced another rift between Hagel and White House officials.

In National Security Council meetings, Hagel said he stressed the importance of avoiding a direct confrontation with Moscow and keeping communication channels open with the Russian military. But he urged the administration to send a clear signal to Moscow — and U.S. allies in Europe — by expediting communications and other gear to the Ukrainian government as it fought against pro-Russian separatists.

“I also made the point that the U.S. should be giving more non-lethal equipment to the Ukrainians than we were, at a much faster pace,” Hagel said. “We had to keep in mind that there was a global leadership optic here. The world, including our NATO partners, was watching to see how we would respond.”

The administration moved too slowly to help Kiev, Hagel said, though he does not believe Washington should have given weapons to the Ukrainians.

I think we should have done more, could have done more,” he said.

Image: Secretary of Defense (at the time) Chuck Hagel, April 4, 2013 (photo: Glenn Fawcett/Department of Defense)