In his recent Foreign Policy interview, Hagel astonishingly admitted that he improvised on the spot and came up with that highly consequential policy declaration on his own [bold mine-DL]. “We had never come down on an answer or a conclusion in the White House. I said what I felt I had to say. I couldn’t say, ‘No.’ Christ, every ally would have walked away from us in the Middle East.”
If this is actually what happened, it is an extraordinary case of strategic negligence by the White House. Whether and to what extent the United States would provide direct military support to the Syrian rebels who the Pentagon overtly trained and equipped was a major component of the anti-Islamic State strategy that President Obama announced just six days earlier. Either Obama had not personally decided before he made his speech or he had left it unresolved or unclear by the time Hagel and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey testified before the SASC. Whether due to negligence or neglect, this was not a policy declaration that any secretary of defense should have made up on the spot.
So the administration appears to have committed the U.S. to go to war against the Syrian government if the regime attacks U.S. proxies, which the regime almost certainly will continue to do. That would put our forces in the absurd and dangerous position of fighting both ISIS and the Syrian regime at the same time.
While it is worth knowing that this wasn’t the plan from the start, it’s hardly reassuring that this was a commitment that Hagel apparently made up on the the fly. It’s a bad sign that the administration hadn’t already figured out the answer to the question before Hagel testified, but what may be even more worrisome about that episode was that the administration didn’t contradict or qualify Hagel’s claim after he made it. It seems that the administration allowed itself once again to be trapped by an ill-considered public statement regarding military action in Syria.
This would be more surprising if we assumed that administration support for the “moderate” opposition was ever something more than a sop to Syria hawks at home and a way for the administration to defend Obama’s decision to expand the war on ISIS into Syria. My guess is that they didn’t think through the implications of offering that support, and they didn’t do that because they were making the offer just to satisfy the people that had been insisting on “arming the rebels” for years. That’s no excuse for the negligence, but it would explain why they didn’t have a position on how they would respond to attacks on the people they were arming. They hadn’t considered it because the support was offered mostly for show to make the expansion of the intervention into Syria seem slightly less ridiculous than it was.