Insight:Syria crisis tests U.S. defense chief wary of war

BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei Thu Aug 29, 2013 1:56am EDT

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel testifies at a Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing on ''Department Leadership.'' on Capitol Hill in Washington June 11, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel testifies at a Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee hearing on ''Department Leadership.'' on Capitol Hill in Washington June 11, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque

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BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN, Brunei (Reuters) - Since U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel left for Southeast Asia last week, he has been wrestling with a dilemma at the heart of Washington's policy on Syria and Hagel's own guiding philosophy - when and how to go to war.

"I think the world has had enough war," Hagel told a forum in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia.

He was responding to a question about the threat of conflict with China but broadened his answer to talk about war, generally.

"I think one of the things that we have learned over the years, regardless of the region of the world, is that wars can't resolve differences," he said on Sunday.

But Hagel hinted in Indonesia the next day that a limited intervention in Syria might be necessary, saying nations sometimes must go to war - including for humanitarian reasons.

He had told reporters toward the start of his trip that the United States couldn't wait indefinitely to respond to any confirmed use of chemical weapons. "If, in fact, this was a deliberate use and attack by the Syrian government on its own people using chemical weapons, there may be another attack coming," he said.

The Southeast Asia tour was meant to highlight President Barack Obama's bid to place greater U.S. attention to the Asia-Pacific region after more than a decade of frustrating war in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hagel left on the tour last Thursday, just as more details were emerging of the extent of an apparent chemical weapons attack in which Syrian rebel groups say many hundreds of people were killed.

Before his modified Boeing 747 left U.S. airspace, Hagel, during a flight to a Hawaii, was dialed in to a White House meeting on Syria to give an update on military options as the Pentagon repositioned ships that might be called upon to act.

On every day of the tour, as global events gather pace, the former Republican senator has seemed to become more and more likely to oversee the first major U.S. military intervention since Libya and his first as defense secretary.


Hagel, now 66, volunteered for the Vietnam War and fought alongside his own brother as an infantryman. He suffered shrapnel wounds and burns from mine blasts, earning two Purple Hearts - the decoration for troops wounded in battle.

When Obama announced Hagel's nomination for the job of defense secretary in January, he said Hagel was the kind of person American troops deserved, someone who could share their perspective. He quoted Hagel as saying: "My frame of geared towards the guy at the bottom who's doing the fighting and the dying."

Hagel earned Obama's respect during his Senate days in part for breaking ranks with fellow Republicans to oppose the Iraq war, where the U.S. military learned the hard way that its influence over sectarian tensions was limited at best.

"I think one of the reasons the president and he intellectually meshed so that they share a view that the American military has unique capabilities to affect events throughout the world - but those capabilities should be used with great caution," said one senior Obama administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

If there was, before Obama, a truism that Democrats were reluctant to use U.S. military power and Republicans were eager to do so, Hagel "falls squarely in the middle."

"His first and second and third instinct is never to rush to military force," the official said.

Hagel's periodic warnings on Syria to Congress have frustrated former Republican allies of his, particularly Senator John McCain, the leading voice in Washington for deep U.S. military involvement in Syria's civil war.

At one hearing in April, Hagel cautioned senators including McCain that "you better be damn sure, as sure as you can be" before committing to action in Syria.

"Because once you're into it, there isn't any backing out, whether it's a no-fly zone, safe zone...whatever it is," Hagel told senators.

"Once you're in, you can't unwind it. You can't just say, 'Well, it's not going as well as I thought it would go so we're gonna get out.'"

Even as the United States hardened its posture in the past week over Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons, a "red line" that Obama set for greater U.S. involvement, Hagel has remained focused on the long-term implications of any U.S. military action there.

"What is the long-term objective here? What are our long-term interests? What are we trying to accomplish in the way of influence, in the way of outcomes?" he told reporters as he flew to Malaysia at the start of the tour, speaking about deliberations underway.


With U.S. international credibility on the line, Obama appears poised to act - possibly opting for limited measures such as cruise missile strikes to punish President Bashar al-Assad and seek to deter further chemical attacks.

But Obama is expected to stop well short of anything remotely resembling Iraq.

Obama, even as he said he had not yet made a decision on military action, argued on Wednesday that a "tailored, limited" strike, not a protracted engagement like Iraq, could be enough to send a strong message that the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated.

"If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, 'Stop doing this,' this can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term," he told "PBS Newshour" in a televised interview.

Still, whether any U.S. action can be limited to a short and sharp punitive strike, or whether it would drag the United States into a broader regional conflict, remains to be seen.

The White House has stressed that any action in Syria would not be geared toward regime change.

That could, at least in part, be because the United States doesn't think moderate rebel groups are ready to fill the void that would be left if Assad were to fall - a point suggested in a recent letter to Congress by General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Dempsey - the top military advisor to Hagel and Obama - has been one of the most outspoken voices of caution on Syria, stressing the complexities of the conflict during a trip to the Middle East earlier this month, prior to the apparent chemical weapons attack.

Dempsey wrote in a letter to a lawmaker following that trip: "The use of U.S. military force can change the military balance, but it cannot resolve the underlying and historic ethnic, religious and tribal issues that are fueling this conflict."

Asked whether he shared Dempsey's views on Syria, Hagel said on August 23: "Any time force is required or used, there are risks, there are consequences. And I think General Dempsey's analysis of this has been very accurate and very correct and very appropriate."

"There's no disagreement between General Dempsey and me on his analysis," Hagel said.

Still, what appears to have been the large-scale use of chemical weapons has fundamentally changed U.S. calculations on military intervention. It has certainly had an emotional impact.

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke on Monday of seeing images of entire families dead in their beds - without a drop of blood. Hagel, too, has been moved by the carnage.

"Another part of Chuck Hagel that is important here is that he really is horrified by scenes that we are seeing on the ground in Syria," the U.S. official said.

A second senior Obama administration official summed it up this way: Hagel, while recognizing the limits of military power, also understood that military action can sometimes be required "to deliver justice." That's particularly true when rules and norms of international law were violated, the official said.

Hagel told the BBC during a visit to Brunei that he had prepositioned assets and that the U.S. military was "ready to go" immediately, if ordered by Obama.

Just a day earlier, Hagel was asked how he could square his feelings that "the world has had enough war" with the looming possibility of U.S. military action in Syria.

Hagel's response spoke volumes.

"I didn't say, would never say, have never said, that no nation should ever go to war," Hagel said in Jakarta on Monday, declining to discuss the case of Syria explicitly.

"I wish the world was such that nations didn't go to war."

(Additional reporting by Warren Strobel and Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Peter Henderson, Claudia Parsons and Tim Dobbyn)

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Comments (8)
Reuters1945 wrote:
“Insight: Syria crisis tests U.S. defense chief wary of war”

It is growing quite apparent that U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is a lot smarter and wiser than his boss, the POTUS.

The same might be said also of General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, a man who another General, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led America to Victory in WW II, would have seen as a kindred Spirit.

Sadly, Mr. Obama, egged on by his not overly intelligent so-called “Advisors”, does not seem to understand that in his preachy, soap box style grandstanding, proclaiming that the US, et al, need to “teach people lessons”, he is actually playing with fire.

In this age of electronic warfare, there are an infinite number of means and ways, that people can do gargantuan amounts of damage to the USA and its various allies without possessing any sophisticated missiles.

The recent internet “crashes” that some major entities have suffered is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg regarding what it is actually possible to achieve by a small number of people with laptops.

The truth is that a Senior Ranking Member of the United Nations Team investigating the recent use of chemical weapons in Syria has just released some early assessments that it appears it was the Rebels themselves who released certain types of poison gas and NOT Assad’s forces.

But regardless of what the final conclusions are made by the full UN Team in Syria, Mr. Obama, for the sake of trying to appear “tough” and to save face after all his past hyperbolic “Red Line” yammering, could easily be setting America up for more problems and pain than anyone can at the present, begin to imagine.

The day Japan launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, at least one high ranking Japanese General remarked: “We have woken a sleeping giant and we will come to regret what we have done”.

The shortsighted White House idea of firing missiles at Syrian targets, even if for just two days might just as well be seen as a front page Declaration of War. Syria and her own allies will be determined to answer and react to any attack on Syria’s soil.

One of the first Laws of the Universe is the concept that every Action leads to an equal and opposite Reaction.

To run that risk of escalating to ever higher and higher degrees the level of violence in Syria, is a prescription for future disaster.

Especially when by helping to topple the Regime of Assad the US will be bringing to power the very actors the US sacrificed the lives of almost 5,000 American soldiers and Three Trillion dollars to defeat or at least keep at bay.

It would appear that the present White House is so devoid of any intelligent long term strategy thinkers and planners that at this point in time we may as well “Bring in the Clowns”.

They would not and could not, possibly make more of a mess of things in the Middle East, than the present Administration has done.

It is a small ray of hope that the British people are starting to stand up, literally in the streets, and say- enough is enough- And more than enough.

Perhaps Americans will soon begin to throw open their millions of windows and begin, as they did in a famous Hollywood movie, to scream at the top of their lungs:

” I’m mad as Hell and I’m NOT going to take it anymore”.

Aug 29, 2013 2:53am EDT  --  Report as abuse
ExDemocrat wrote:
President Obama just needs to read the following from his teleprompter: “I screwed up by talking about a red line in Syria. What was I thinking!? Never mind!”

Aug 29, 2013 5:27am EDT  --  Report as abuse
StigTW wrote:
Hagel is a salesman – he just travels the world selling US arms to countries that are willing to take on extra debt for weapons.

Aug 29, 2013 6:25am EDT  --  Report as abuse
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