The American Interest

Rudderless at the Pentagon

Chuck Hagel’s abrupt departure from the Pentagon on November 24 became inevitable after weeks of disagreement with the White House over strategy against the Islamic State (IS).  The split had become public a month earlier, when Hagel’s blunt two-page memorandum on Middle East policy was leaked to the press.  Addressed to national security advisor Susan Rice, the memo warned that the campaign against the Islamic State would unravel unless there was greater clarity regarding Washington’s intentions in Syria.

Hagel was ambivalent.  On the one hand, he was uncomfortable with the insistence of humanitarian bombers on Obama’s team—notably Rice and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power—that targeting the regime of Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad should be an integral part of anti-IS strategy.  On the other, he was aware that the nascent anti-IS coalition could unravel if its stridently anti-Assad members, such as Saudi Arabia, decided that the effort was no longer worth their while.  All along he was unable to spell out what would constitute victory against the Islamic State and how the current strategy is going to achieve it.

To make things worse for Hagel, his relations with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had become strained because of the latter’s doubts about Obama’s “no boots on the ground” approach to the Islamic...

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