The New York Times reported that “officials characterized the decision as a recognition that the threat from the militant group Islamic State will require different skills from those that Mr. Hagel…was brought in to employ.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/25/us/hagel-said-to-be-stepping-down-as-defense-chief-under-pressure.html?_r=0) The implication was that Hagel was a timid man, originally brought in to implement Obama’s stated policy of withdrawing from first Iraq and then Afghanistan, while downsizing the Defense Department. With the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a new policy was called for, and a new defense secretary, the unnamed White House source proclaimed, one more muscular and forceful in confronting the Islamic State.
While the passage of time will undoubtedly provide more leaks, perhaps a book of memoirs by Chuck Hagel and further context, this much is clear; President Barack Obama’s national security strategy in relation to Islamist threats stemming from the Middle East, in particular the Islamic State, has been an unmitigated disaster, and soon-to-be former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam combat veteran and moderate Republican with a strong streak of bipartisanship, has been set up as a scapegoat for the administration’s failures.
What we do know for sure is what both the President and his Defense Secretary had stated on the public record in connection with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and which President Obama insists on calling ISIL.
In January 2014 Obama told David Remnick of The New Yorker, after Islamist forces in Iraq seized Fallujah and raised the Al-Qaeda flag, “The analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/annals-of-the-presidency)
In contrast, Chuck Hagel had this to say about the Islamic State at a Pentagon press briefing conducted on August 21, 2014: “They are an imminent threat to every interest we have, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else… They are beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded. This is beyond anything we’ve seen.” (http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/21/us-usa-islamicstate-idUSKBN0GL24V20140821)
While the President was initially dismissive of the Islamic State, and has remained tentative and uncertain in his at times awkward responses, Hagel was far from the passive and timid defense secretary he is now being portrayed as by the masters of spin in the White House. His very forceful and articulate warning displays an impressive level of sober realism that is sorely lacking within the President’s national security council, and from Obama himself.
Turning Chuck Hagel into a scapegoat cannot obfuscate the glaring failures cascading out of the ruins of the administration’s inept foreign policy and national security strategy. Obama is a president who loudly proclaims red lines in the sand, such as use of chemical warfare agents by the Syrian regime, and when President Bashar al-Assad defied those red lines with a grotesque massacre of innocents in the Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Obama grasped onto the flimsy straw tossed at him by Russia’s President Putin, rendering his red line invisible. His is an administration which sends presidential letters proclaiming friendship to the tyrannical “Supreme Leader” of Iran, who almost daily dishes out hatred and contempt for America, while permitting–perhaps encouraging–a senior unnamed official to tell journalist Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic that Israel’s Prime Minster Netanyahu was, in effect, a fool for trusting President Obama’s pledges on preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, because what the administration really sought was to delay an Israeli military operation until the Iranian nuclear program progressed to the point where it was beyond the capacity of the Israel Defense Forces to take it out. (http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/the-crisis-in-us-israel-relations-is-officially-here/382031/) No wonder few world leaders maintain trust in the President’s word and integrity.
Beyond the Middle East, President Obama has “engineered” the radical deconstruction of Russia-U.S.
Like the good soldier he is, Chuck Hagel stood stoically and with his dignity intact, beside President Obama and Vice President Biden in the White House’s State Dining Room, as his thinly-disguised termination was being ceremoniously performed. In time, just as with his predecessors Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, he may pen a tell-all book of memoirs, highly critical of the President. However, we need not wait for a future book to conclude that it is the President and his tightly-knit national security team–a clique which largely excluded and isolated Chuck Hagel– and not the fired defense secretary–who bear the historical responsibility for a record of disastrous decision-making.
In 2008, candidate-for-president Barack Obama proclaimed the audacity of hope in a time of despair, and wrote a very thoughtful and sensible op-ed piece in The New York Times, entitled “My Plan For Iraq,” in which Obama advocated the retention of a residual military force in Iraq and warned that, “we must be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. ” ( http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/14/opinion/14obama.html?_r=0)
As with so much else connected with President Obama and national security, he has acted contrary to his past words and proclaimed intentions. There is no longer hope; the despair remains. Amid the debris of a ruined national security strategy, we are left with the audacity of failure, glaring and unhidden, in spite of the best efforts at scapegoating Chuck Hagel.