The headline on The Hill’s homepage late yesterday raised the prospect of an important rift within the Obama administration: “Hagel memo criticized WH Syria strategy.” The article referenced a CNN report with a similarly striking headline: “Hagel wrote memo to White House criticizing Syria strategy.”
Kevin Drum was flipping around the channels yesterday and came upon “a CNN chyron informing me breathlessly that Chuck Hagel had just ‘blasted’ President Obama’s Syria policy.”
It all sounds quite serious, doesn’t it? If the president’s own Defense secretary, during a war, is openly criticizing the administration’s Syria policy, that’s a pretty important development for U.S. foreign policy.
Except, one gets a different picture by actually reading CNN’s piece.
Earlier this month, while on an [sic] trip to Latin America to discuss climate change, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sat down and wrote a highly private, and very blunt memo to National Security Advisor Susan Rice about U.S. policy toward Syria.It was a detailed analysis, crafted directly by Hagel “expressing concern about overall Syria strategy,” a senior U.S. official tells CNN…. The focus of the memo was “we need to have a sharper view of what to do about the Assad regime,” the official said.
So, where’s the part in which the Pentagon chief “criticized” and “blasted” the White House policy? As it turns out, there really is no such part.
Kevin added, “That’s it? Hagel wrote an internal memo suggesting that we should have a ‘sharper view’ of what to do about Assad? And some sympathetic White House official kinda sorta agreed that Hagel felt we might be in trouble if ‘adjustments’ aren’t made?”
Yep, that’s the story. In fact, the whole “controversy” – I use the word loosely – appears to be based on a random paragraph in a New York Times report, in which Hagel’s defenders within the administration “insist that he is more assertive on policy than his reputation suggests.”
On a substantive level, the Pentagon chief is raising a perfectly legitimate point. U.S. forces can, and probably will, continue to target Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq, but the administration must recognize the need for realistic goals on the future of the Assad regime. That’s not an especially contentious point, and it’s quite likely the president’s team agrees.
To see this as Hagel “blasting” Obama’s policy is pretty silly, and those looking for an important rift between the White House and the Defense secretary will have to keep looking. This is pretty weak tea.