Team of Bumblers?
Are Susan Rice and Chuck Hagel equal to today’s new national-security challenges?
By MICHAEL HIRSH
When President Obama, after months of equivocation over how to respond to the takeover of parts of Iraq and Syria by radical militants, announced in September that the United States would “lead a broad coalition to roll back this terrorist threat,” the White House swung quickly into action, sending proposed legislation to train and equip Syrian rebels to Capitol Hill that same day.
Unfortunately, the White House failed to consult with the Pentagon—which would be doing most of the rolling back—on the timing or details of the announcement.
According to multiple sources, behind the scenes a few things went badly awry in the launch of Obama’s new policy. First, the Pentagon was surprised by the president’s timing, according to a senior defense official. “We didn’t know it was going to be in the speech,” he said, referring to Obama’s Sept. 10 address to the nation. Second, the White House neglected to give Pentagon lawyers a chance to revise and approve the proposed legislative language before it went to the Hill, which is considered standard practice. Staffers working for Rep. Buck McKeon, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said they were appalled by what they saw: language so sloppy that it failed to mention adequate protections against so-called “green-on-blue” attacks by trainees on American troops, and effectively left the Defense Department liable for funding the mission against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL)—even though the president was telling members of Congress he didn’t need money for this new mission, since the Saudis were putting it up. “What came over would have not have been a mission the DoD could have executed,” says a senior Republican committee staffer.
The Armed Services Committee later went directly to the Pentagon and worked out new language, the White House approved it, and Obama signed the legislation as part of a new Continuing Resolution on Sept. 19. But that was hardly the first instance in recent months when the White House failed to consult with the Pentagon. The office of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was taken by surprise as well last July, when national security adviser Susan Rice sent a letter to House Speaker John Boehner requesting a withdrawal of the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) passed in 2002 to enable U.S. military action in Iraq. This letter came after Mosul, a key northern Iraqi city, had already fallen to ISIL and the scale of the threat was becoming clear. The letter was never acted on, and in fact the AUMF that Rice wanted withdrawn is now part of the very authority the administration says it is operating under, along with the 2001 AUMF against al Qaeda. The Pentagon was not given a heads-up about that letter either, according to multiple sources. “We didn’t know it was going over there, and there were significant concerns about it,” said the senior defense official. “We had these authorities to go into Iraq under the 2002 AUMF, which is what she wanted repealed. We believed the authorities were still needed.”
National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell said the Pentagon was informed of the new plan against ISIL before it went to Congress, and that in fact Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey were with the president the morning of the speech. Although he indicated it was not clear exactly what details of the new strategy were shared with the Pentagon and when, Ventrell said that coordination between the NSC and other agencies is ongoing and extensive, that Rice regularly hosts lunches with Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry. They “have a good, solid working relationship,” Ventrell said.Back to Top