By Rachel Stoltzfoos
In his first interview since leaving the Pentagon last year, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel describes White House national security policy meetings as rambling and indecisive, often ignoring big questions and putting off hard decisions.
“The meetings were not productive,” the former senator and Vietnam War veteran told Foreign Policy in a December interview. “I don’t think many times we ever actually got to where we needed to be. We kept kind of deferring the tough decisions. And there were always too many people in the room.”
Hagel resigned in 2014 over conflicts with the administration, particularly regarding Syria policy and the debate over shutting down Guantanamo Bay. He was frustrated by what he considered the administration’s lack of a strategy to deal with the Syrian civil war and the rise of the Islamic State, which he was criticized for over-hyping at the time.
“We seemed to veer away from the big issues,” Hagel told FP, referring to National Security Council meetings held by Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser. “What was our political strategy on Syria?”
Hagel preferred small meetings or private phone calls, where the chance of something leaking to the press was reduced, but instead was often called to large Situation Room meetings that lasted for hours and apparently went nowhere.
“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 FP. “Some of them would go four hours.”
An unnamed senior administration official told FP the meetings were long because of the nature of the security challenges dealt with. “It speaks to the rigorous policy process that we run,” the official told FP.
Administration officials were critical of Hagel after he resigned, voicing anonymous criticisms to the press in what he told FP was an attempt to “destroy” him personally. He told FP he still doesn’t see evidence the administration has developed a complete strategy to deal with Syria.
Subsequent developments in Syria are vindicating Hagel, and even Obama’s sympathizers concede his policy of disengagement from the Middle East contributed to the rise of ISIS. Foreign Policy CEO and Editor David Rothkopf, who shows sympathy for Obama’s policies, skewered him in a recent piece for his stubborn policy of disengagement.
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