Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said Wednesday that “we will do everything possible, that we can do, to destroy [ISIS’s] capacity to inflict harm on our people, western values, and our interests.”
Hagel was speaking at a town hall at the Naval War College on Wednesday afternoon, where he answered questions about the American response — and perceived insufficiency thereof — to the threat posed by the Islamic State.
Earlier on Wednesday, President Barack Obama had announced that the American objective is now to “degrade and destroy [ISIS] so that it’s no longer a threat not just to Iraq, but also the region and to the United States.”
When, during the town hall, Hagel was asked whether he would “vow to the American people that ISIS will be destroyed,” he demurred, saying that such vows “are beyond my mortal capacity.”
“I know this,” he continued, “about this president, this vice president, about everyone in his administration, about myself — we will do everything possible, that we can do, to destroy their capacity to inflict harm on our people, western values, and our interests.”
Asked about the specific nature of that campaign, Hagel explained that the U.S. is committed to the formation of a “stable, new, inclusive government in Iraq,” and reiterated the administration’s opposition to unilateral action in the region.
“We’re bringing a group of countries together,” he said, “that together can help support forces in Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East, who respect freedom and dignity and the choices that people will make. Military is part of that. Planning is part of that. Working with Congress is part of that. Resources are part of that.”
He explained that the Defense Department is, and has been, providing the president with many options “to degrade and destroy ISIL’s capabilities … It’s not ‘contain.’ It’s degrade and destroy.”
Hagel shied away from calling ISIS “an imminent threat to the U.S. homeland,” saying instead that it is “an imminent threat to all of our interests. … We are aware of over 100 U.S. citizens who have U.S. passports who are fighting in the Middle East with ISIL forces. There may be more. We don’t know. We can’t take a chance.”
On Tuesday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki refused to say whether the passports of Americans confirmed to be fighting with ISIS have been revoked, saying “it’s not as black and white as that.”
Asked about the president’s comment last week that “we don’t have a strategy yet” for dealing with ISIS, Hagel countered that “there is a strategy to this. … There’s little question in my mind that there’s a sense of urgency.”
“We‘re looking at all those options,” he went on, referring to possible U.S. airstrikes in Syria. “All these things are options that the president wants to see.”
Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson recently announced his plans to introduce legislation in Congress authorizing just that. “Let there be no doubt,” he said, “we must go after ISIS right away because the U.S. is the only one that can put together a coalition to stop this group that’s intent on barbaric cruelty.” (RELATED: Congress Demands Retaliation Against ISIS)
Asked specifically whether the DoD has “placed options on [the president’s] desk for military action inside Syria,” Hagel said that “options are constantly being defined and refined… We’re constantly providing different options and contingency plans… He has options all the time that we’re refining.”
Hagel agreed with the president’s decision to rule out “boots on the ground” in Iraq, and also said that “just airstrikes alone won’t fulfill — accomplish — what the mission is,” again stressing the importance of a new Iraqi government and international cooperation. He also expressed frustration with Congress’s refusal to grant the administration the $500 million it requested in June to arm and train “moderate” Syrian rebels.
Finally, Hagel, like the president, refused to call Russia’s actions in Ukraine an invasion, saying “I’ll leave that to others who worry about how you express yourself, or what words you use.”
“You can define it any way you want,” he said. “We have been very clear on this. … I think we’re taking the responsible actions that we must, that are pretty devastating to Russia.”