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Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel: 'More War' Will Not Fix Syrian Conflict


Chuck Hagel left the Obama administration nearly a year ago. Now, the former secretary of defense is criticizing the White House for its handling of one issue in particular - Syria. Hagel says an important moment on Syria came in August of 2013. That month, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on Syrian civilians. And President Obama had said the use of chemical weapons was a red line, and the Syrian regime had just crossed it. On August 31, Obama went to the Rose Garden and said the U.S. should take military action, but first he said...


BARACK OBAMA: I will seek authorization for the use of force from the American people's representatives in Congress.

MCEVERS: That authorization never went to a full vote before the full Congress. And in the meantime, Russia helped make a deal with the U.S. to destroy Syria's chemical weapons. Chuck Hagel now says not acting militarily was a mistake.

CHUCK HAGEL: It hurt the president's reputation as a leader. It really questioned what other - both allies and other countries could believe in his word. Could they trust his word? Could they count on his word? In fact, does he mean what he says? It was fundamentally, in my opinion, a matter of - he debased his currency of trust and confidence, I believe, when he pulled back from what he had said.

MCEVERS: The administration, of course, would say that it wanted approval from Congress before it launched any strikes, and also that by standing down, of course, the U.S. and Syria were later able to negotiate a deal for Syria to destroy all its chemical weapons.

HAGEL: Well, two points. One, the destruction of components of the chemical weapon arsenal and inventory, that really was led by Russia. And, yes, it's good. Yes, we achieved something, not unimportant, by the way. But that's not where we started. That's kind of how all this drifted. Second, your point about the Congress, that was talked about in our meetings, Congress being part of this, being supportive of this. But these kind of came after the president had made the statements that he did. And I think we got ourselves in a bind and essentially looked for ways out of not fulfilling the commitment that was made when the president said if President Assad crosses that red line then that will require the United States to take some action.

MCEVERS: So I just want to clarify. You're saying that the administration's wish to go to Congress came after the decision to not launch the strikes on Damascus.

HAGEL: No, we talked about it before. And John Kerry, others - especially those of us who had had experience in a Congress, certainly the president - understood the significance of having the Congress with the president on any kind of a military action. We did talk about it, but when we did stand down and didn't go forward then that became, I think, more of an excuse.

MCEVERS: It's been purported that you later wrote a memo, a two-page memo, to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, about Syria, saying we don't have a policy. What else did that memo say?

HAGEL: I did write a memo, which was leaked, saying that I had been continuously bombarded by my counterparts from other countries, especially NATO, but all of my counterparts from around the world. What are you doing in Syria? What is your policy on Syria? How are you going to lead this effort? What do you want the rest of us to do? And in that memo, my point was not to blame anybody - I was part of the National Security Council - was we've got to concentrate on coming up with a political strategy. We don't have a strategy. We have to have some kind of a strategy that gets to a policy that deals with some kind of an endgame here because our allies are asking about it. They don't trust what we're saying. They don't know what we're saying. They're confused by what we're saying and what we're doing. We've got to focus on this.

MCEVERS: And what happened?

HAGEL: Well, there was no specific - a follow-up to the memo.

MCEVERS: What should the U.S. policy on Syria be now? What's the way out?

HAGEL: Well, I think what the president is doing now, what Secretary Kerry is doing, is the correct way to go forward, and that is we have got to find a common denominator, a common interest platform with Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to get to some platform of stability. If we do not do that, we'll continue to engage in proxy wars, send more troops, more strikes. The Russians will do the same. The Iranians will do the same. The Saudis will do the same. The Turks will do the same. And you will just eventually destroy the Middle East. And we're seeing that we're on a good path to that now. So we've got to find some stability, and that has to be a political settlement. There's a role for the military. Yes, there's a role for strikes. Yes, there's a role for that. But more war is not going to fix this problem.

MCEVERS: That is former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel joining us from our studio in Washington. Secretary Hagel, thank you very much for your time.

HAGEL: My pleasure. Thank you.

MCEVERS: We contacted the White House for a response to Hagel's criticism. A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment on the record. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.