Chuck Hagel’s resignation earlier this week has been widely interpreted as a firing, allegedly for the White House’s dim view of his performance coordinating military action against the Islamic State. Yet as John Judis notes, even if criticisms of Hagel’s tenure at the Pentagon are justified, it’s hardly his fault that Obama’s IS strategy is muddled and contradictory. The U.S. is not only undermining its anti-Assad strategy by carrying out airstrikes against his radical enemies within Syria; it’s making empty threats to overthrow Assad despite a paltry financial and military commitment to doing so. As Judis writes: “There’s a disconnect, in other words, between what the administration says it is doing in Syria and what it is doing.” Elizabeth Drew detects the same problem: “The White House is stuck in a [Syria] policy that has very little chance of working, putting the president and his national security aides in real peril. And Chuck Hagel, who watched all this with dismay, became the odd man out.”
I’ve written before that Barack Obama has a better sense than most politicians of the inevitable trade-offs and paradoxes that bedevil foreign policy. For the first several years of his administration, there was an evident attempt to cautiously balance interests, to roll back the excesses of the Bush years, and to adopt “least-worst” policies. It is striking how absent this mindset is from Drew’s piece. Drew features a number of quotes making the White House sound wholly perplexed by events in Syria. Consider one adviser’s declaration that the president’s “hands are largely tied because of the brutal executions by ISIS.” Or another participant in policy discussions who claimed that “as long as ISIS is beheading Americans there’s no way the president can stand up and say that Syria isn’t our problem.”
As Drew pointedly writes: “This is an assumption, not a fact.” If these statements are indicative of the administration’s thinking, then their foreign policy problem runs far deeper than Chuck Hagel. Muddling the U.S.’s Syria strategy on the basis of propaganda videos is an especially stupid way to conduct foreign policy. Now, the Obama of the least-worst mindset would not, on my view, have elected to ignore IS. The events which brought the group to public notice in the U.S.—its threatened genocide against the Yazidis—justified a limited American intervention designed merely to prevent the worst from happening. That was the approach the administration took in Libya. But regardless of the other reasons for expanding the war against IS into its Syria strongholds, doing so leads to a contradiction with the U.S.’s stated aim of removing Bashar al-Assad from power. Chuck Hagel didn’t make that policy, and he’s not responsible for the confusion and conflicting, halfhearted policy executions that have resulted.