President Barack Obama’s top national security aides are at odds over the U.S. strategy for Syria, engaged in a debate behind the scenes as the administration endures a rash of withering skepticism on foreign and defense policy.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel last week sent what’s been described as a sharply critical memo on Syria to National Security Adviser Susan Rice, faulting the administration’s outlook for failing to account for Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The U.S. must clarify what it’s going to do about Assad, Hagel wrote, especially given that it will face a decision about how to respond when the Syrian fighters it wants to train in Saudi Arabia come into conflict with Assad-backed forces.
The memo was first described on Wednesday by The New York Times. A defense official confirmed details about it to POLITICO. And Hagel was asked about it Thursday, as well as whether he has doubts about the current Syria strategy.
(POLITICO’s full coverage of defense news)
“The baseline is this is a complicated issue,” Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon. “We are constantly assessing and reassessing and adapting to the realities of what is the best approach, how we can be most effective. That’s a responsibility of any leader, and because we [the Defense Department] are a significant element of this issue, we owe the president, and we owe the National Security Council, our best thinking on this. And it has to be honest and it has to be direct.”
The Times’ report followed stories by POLITICO Magazine, Reuters and others questioning Obama’s management of national security as the U.S. grapples with crises in Syria and Iraq, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the ongoing standoff with Russia in Eastern Europe.