President Obama’s past three defense secretaries have emerged as some of his toughest critics on military strategy and foreign policy.
A retired general and military scholar says the fact that three consecutive defense secretaries have criticized decision-making should be a sign the White House needs to retool its National Security Council process.
In his memoir, Robert Gates wrote that Mr. Obama did not always live up to budget agreements with him and suspected the top brass of conspiracies against the commander in chief. Mr. Obama once retorted to the command by saying “that’s an order” — a pronouncement that “shocked” Mr. Gates as unprecedented.
“That order was unnecessary and insulting, proof positive of the depth of the Obama White House’s distrust of the nation’s military leadership,” he wrote.
Mr. Gates’ successor, Leon Panetta, wrote that the president “misses opportunities” to act, such as in the Syrian civil war. He roundly criticized Mr. Obama’s swap of five hardened Taliban leaders for one Army soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.
Now comes Mr. Panetta’s successor, former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, who did not wait for his memoir after the president pushed him aside. He blasted the White House staff in an interview with Foreign Policy in December.
Of the three, Mr. Hagel’s break with Mr. Obama is the most surprising. Unlike his two predecessors, Mr. Hagel had developed a friendship and alliance with the rookie Democratic senator when they served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Hagel accompanied Mr. Obama on a trip to the war in Iraq and became one of President George W. Bush’s harshest critics on Capitol Hill — all of which aided Mr. Obama’s presidential run.
Mr. Hagel was particularly critical of Mr. Obama’s decision to draw a “red line” that Bashar Assad should not cross. But once the Syrian president breached the line by unleashing chemical weapons, Mr. Obama ordered a stand-down of forces set to bomb military targets in exchange for Mr. Assad giving up that arsenal.
“There’s no question in my mind that it hurt the credibility of the president’s word when this occurred,” Mr. Hagel told the Foreign Policy website. “A president’s word is a big thing, and when the president says things, that’s a big deal.”
Mr. Hagel said NATO allies would ask him about Mr. Obama’s overall plan for the Syrian civil war, for which there was none in 2013.
He said Mr. Obama permitted a process in which White House staffers went around the chain of command and telephoned four-star combatant commanders to make policy, while micromanaging day-to-day operations at the Pentagon.
“For one thing, there were too many meetings,” he said. “The meetings were not productive.”
Retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, a scholar at the Institute for the Study of War and a professor in national security at Georgetown University, said the White House should closely listen to men such as Messrs. Gates, Panetta and Hagel because their constructive criticisms mirror each other.
“I think three [defense secretaries] in a row should give the president pause and good reason to re-evaluate the administration’s decision-making processes in detail,” said Mr. Dubik. “In effect, what they are saying is that the current decision-making methodologies being used to wage our wars are neither sufficiently effective nor efficient. These are three experienced leaders, and their critique should be taken seriously. No process will be perfect, and none will satisfy everyone. But when three [defense secretaries] identify problems, I’d say that’s a ‘trend’ worth acting upon.”
‘Passion of a leader’
Republicans have roundly criticized Mr. Obama’s foreign policy for issues such as calling the Islamic State terrorist army the “JV team” after it invaded western Iraq in December 2013; saying his counterterrorism policy in Yemen was a “success” weeks before the U.S.-backed government was ousted; and vouching for security in Iraq when he pulled all troops out in December 2011 even though his top military advisers were saying he needed to keep a stability force in place.
After the Charlie Hebdo massacre by radical Islamists in Paris last January, world leaders gathered in the French capital for a grand symbolic demonstration against terrorism. The White House sent no one from Washington, and later admitted to a missed opportunity.
Mr. Hagel said that when he tried early on to label the Islamic State for what it is — a new kind of powerful terrorist army bent on creating a state — the White House staff came down hard on him. It was another anecdote that underlined the fact that the president did not take the group seriously.
“Then I got accused of trying to hype something, overstate something and make something more than it was,” Mr. Hagel told Foreign Policy. “I didn’t know all of it, but I knew [we] were up against something here that we had never seen before. And in many ways we were not prepared for it.”
Mr. Gates, Mr. Obama’s first defense secretary, whom he held over from the Bush administration, expressed much the same criticisms in his book “Duty.”
“The controlling nature of the Obama White House and the staff took micromanagement and operational meddling to a new level,” he said.
“I think Obama considered time spent with generals and admirals an obligation,” he said.
On Afghanistan, Mr. Gates said Mr. Obama saw his generals as conspiring against him on troop levels.
“Given his campaign rhetoric about Afghanistan, I think I myself, our commanders, and our troops had expected more commitment to the cause and more passion for it from him,” Mr. Gates said.
Mr. Panetta’s book, “Worthy Fights,” like Mr. Hagel’s, goes after Mr. Obama for nixing a military response to Mr. Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria.
“By failing to respond, it sent the wrong message to the world,” said Mr. Panetta, a former Democratic House member and Mr. Obama’s CIA director at the time Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs.
“Too often, in my view, the president relies on the logic of a law professor rather than the passion of a leader,” he wrote.
Post-book, Mr. Panetta is urging the president to do more militarily against the Islamic State — as have a number of moderate Democrats in Congress.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest has defended Mr. Obama against such criticism.
For example, at the Oct. 6, 2014, White House briefing, he said Mr. Panetta’s negative analysis was wrong.
“Time and time again, we have seen the president use that position to lead the international community and ensure that we are making the world a better place in a way that also furthers the core interest of American national security,” Mr. Earnest said. “The president is proud of the record of leadership that he’s demonstrated. It doesn’t mean that the work is done.”
Mr. Hagel’s successor, Ashton Carter, has testified that every recommendation submitted to Mr. Obama on fighting the Islamic State has been approved. Still, he said that the U.S. needs to do more in its war against the terrorist army based in Syria and holding territory in Iraq.
All three former defense secretaries said they admire Mr. Obama. Mr. Hagel said he holds him in “high regard.”
Wrote Mr. Gates: “I thought Obama was first-rate in both intellect and temperament. You didn’t have to agree with all of his policies to acknowledge that.”