Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is one of the finest men I have known in public life. His departure from President Obama’s Cabinet represents a major loss for the administration, the American military and the security of our nation.
It is not profoundly important whether we ultimately learn that Hagel resigned in protest over policies he disagrees with or was fired from the Cabinet because the president or his dominating White House staff — which has alienated a string of previous internationally respected Cabinet members — could not accept Hagel’s advice or tolerate his dissent. What is profoundly important is that Obama has a Cabinet problem, a policy problem and a White House staff problem.
It is extraordinary and unprecedented in my memory that two previous secretaries of Defense, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, have written critical books while the president they served remains in office, that a third secretary of Defense is now leaving over significant policy differences and that the president’s former secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, gave a critical interview in The Atlantic expressing concern regarding the same issues that troubled secretaries Gates, Panetta and Hagel.
It is significant that a long list of highest level national security members of the president’s Cabinet have believed and made it publicly known — correctly, in my opinion — that certain members of the White House staff have repeatedly and aggressively intervened in the conduct of security policy in ways that are detrimental to our security interests.
It is equally significant that a long list of highest level national security members of the president’s Cabinet have believed and made it publicly known — correctly, in my opinion — that certain members of the White House staff have repeatedly and aggressively intervened in the conduct of security policy in ways that are detrimental to our security interests.
It is also profoundly important and extraordinarily rare in military policy to have Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, repeatedly suggest that he may someday recommend additional ground forces as necessary to defeat and destroy the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), while the president repeatedly suggests, even before this advice is offered, that he will reject it.
Let me clearly state my dissent from key aspects of the policy that exists today. The way the policy is currently constructed — employing substantial air power without sufficient ground capabilities while pressuring the Free Syrian Army to refrain from pursuing its primary goal of removing Bashar Assad as the murderous dictator of Syria, and offering the Free Syrian Army support that is too little, too late and too slow to implement — will have two very negative consequences.
First, the current policy will not and cannot defeat or destroy ISIS and will not and cannot destroy the terrorist super-state that ISIS is well on the road to creating. Air power alone cannot accomplish this mission. If the mission is not accomplished, the danger of terror attacks against the United States and Europe will ultimately come to fruition.
Second, the current policy will preserve and actually help Assad remain in power. As we direct our attacks against ISIS, Assad will direct his attacks against the Free Syrian Army that our current policy will not materially help for another year.
The mistake in our policy toward Syria and ISIS dates back to 2012, along with the private dissent against this policy from leading members of the president’s Cabinet and key military commanders who believed — and in many cases still believe, as I did then and do today — that our policy should have been more forceful and coherent.
I have previously suggested that our air power against ISIS should be complemented by a ground of force of at least 15,000 special-operations-quality troops including Americans, Europeans and forces from member states of the Arab League.
We do not need and should not create a large land-based force. I strongly opposed the Iraq War under President George W. Bush. We must not make that mistake again. However, to defeat and destroy ISIS — the most evil and sadistic terrorist group to ever threaten the United States, Europe and both Sunni and Shi’ite nations in the Mideast — there must be at least the limited ground capability I propose.
The officials I have named here are high-level and highly respected with views they can each state in their own way. To the degree their concerns are publicly known, I support them. It is profoundly unwise for any president to reject so much wise advice from so many distinguished advisers with such vast experience. It is profoundly unhelpful when any president presides over a government in a state of perpetual civil war between his staff and his Cabinet.