Photography by Kyle Norton
A Middle East specialist, HAGAR CHEMALI has worked at the center of global crises in Syria, Russia, Iran and beyond. Today, she is a highly sought-after political commentator and media strategist whose reputation of outstanding expertise, authenticity and objectivity has even the most hardened political leaders singing her praises
It was prom week 2019, and the world was beginning to fall to pieces. “Prom week” is what national security expert Hagar Hajjar Chemali calls the week in September when the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) convenes in New York to debate the world’s most critical problems. They do this with high style, sober declarations and a pinch of farce, for in the end, not a lot happens, since the major powers seldom agree on anything big.
UNGA week is also a highlight of Chemali’s year. As a “foreign policy nerd” who spent twelve years in the Bush 43 and Obama administrations, she gets to explain to cable TV audiences of millions what’s happening in the world and why it matters. The big topic of the moment was Iran’s audacious bombing, a few days earlier, of key Saudi Arabian oil installations, a crisis with the potential to spin dangerously out of control, pitting a misbehaving ally (Saudi Arabia) against a misbehaving adversary (Iran) while misbehaving world leaders (Trump, Netanyahu, Putin) tossed brickbats from the sideline.
Chemali is ideally suited to explicate such goings-on. The thirty-eight-year-old Greenwich native is apolitical, articulate and telegenic; she is a Middle East specialist who served at the U.S. Treasury Department, the National Security Council, Treasury again, and finally the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, where she worked closely with Ambassador Samantha Power, one of the great human rights proponents of our age. In these jobs, she wrestled with the Syrian civil war, Russia’s incursion into Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, and the Iran nuclear deal, among other weighty issues. And she has the rare distinction of having served as both a policy maker and a spokesperson.
“Whenever I flip on cable and see her on the screen, I know she’s going to have something smart to say,” says Natalie Wyeth Earnest, former Treasury Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs. “She brings to the table a powerful mix of policy expertise combined with the polish and presence of a spokesperson.” Daniel Shapiro, who was Chemali’s boss at the National Security Council before President Obama named him ambassador to Israel, says, “Hagar is a uniquely skilled communicator in foreign policy issues.She has identified a gap in the ability of our government to connect with younger Americans, younger voters, and explain what’s become a very complicated world.” He adds, “She’s clever, often very funny, but always factual in her analyses.”
And so, as this latest Iran crisis simmered away during prom week 2019, Chemali was in high demand. On September 24, she was scheduled to discuss Iran on Bloomberg in the morning, on CNN, MSNBC and BBC in the afternoon and on MSNBC again at night. But the Trump era is nothing if not a news firehose, spraying wildly in all directions. The previous week, the Washington Post had reported an anonymous CIA whistleblower’s complaint that President Trump had tried to extort our ally Ukraine for his own benefit, namely by withholding $391 million in Congressionally-allocated military aid until Ukraine publicly slimed Joe Biden, Trump’s prospective rival in 2020. The scandal intensified through the day, and by the time Chemali sat down with MSNBC’s Ali Velshi, Iran was out the window: The topic was Ukraine. “All right, but I’m only talking about the foreign policy angle,” she told MSNBC producers. “I’m not getting into the impeachment stuff.”
MAKING SENSE OF THE CHAOS
Hagar Chemali is an analyst, not an opiner, at least not in any strict partisan sense. “I pride myself on being objective,” she says. “It’s something I take great care to do.” Early in her adult life, Chemali was a registered Republican with moderate instincts. Her instincts remain moderate, but she came to believe her party had been hijacked by conservative extremists, and so now finds herself comfortably independent. (In the 2016 election, she preferred John Kasich but voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election. She disliked, to put it mildly, Trump’s authoritarian rhetoric and peculiar homages to Vladimir Putin.) As an analyst Chemali makes no blanket praise or condemnation of a president. She’s apt to criticize parts of Obama’s foreign policy despite having worked for him—she had major objections concerning Syria—and to applaud facets of Trump’s, such as his muscular use of sanctions.
But now she saw Trump heading into geopolitical bizarro land. Hours after Chemali appeared on the afternoon shows, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry, and the next morning the White House responded by releasing a rough transcript of a key Trump phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, apparently to bolster Trump’s protestations of innocence. Far from doing that, however, the transcript largely affirmed the whistleblower’s complaint. (And later, a parade of diplomats and national security officials came before the House Intelligence Committee to fill out a sordid picture of smears and deceptions.)
We sat down with Chemali at a coffee shop on Greenwich Avenue that afternoon, September 25, as Washington fizzed with impeachment talk. She has long, light brown hair curled loosely at the tips, lively dark eyes and a generous laugh. Her demeanor is open and gregarious. “Besides her keen intellect and strong work ethic,” Natalie Wyeth Earnest tells us, “she has a warmness to her that’s rare in the work we do.” Daniel Glaser, a former Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing known by some as Treasury’s “chief thug” and by others as “the missionary from hell,” turns happily tame at the mention of Chemali: “Hagar is the most genuinely caring, nicest person you’ll ever meet,” he says. “Who you see on the surface is who she is deep down. There’s no hidden agenda. People trust her because they can trust her, people confide in her because they can confide in her.” Peter Tanous, a finance executive, author, and founding chairman of the American Task Force for Lebanon—whom Chemali regards as a mentor—remarks: “Hagar is the kind of person who lights up a room the minute she enters.”
At this moment, Chemali is indeed alight, but with quiet fury. The Ukraine scandal amounted to “a gross abuse of power,” she says. “It’s outrageous. Most national security analysts were flabbergasted when they saw this.” Bad enough that the U.S. had hamstrung a strategic ally, Ukraine, and aided a foe, Russia, which at that very moment was making war on Ukraine with the apparent goal of gaining dominion over it. Worse (from a domestic standpoint) that here again was the specter of a foreign country intruding into our elections, but this time with Trump, not Vladimir Putin, as the driver. “It renders the United States vulnerable because you’re saying to the international community, ‘I’m up for grabs,’” Chemali observes. “Russia or China could come along and say, ‘I can play around with disinformation to help your election, if you give me this in exchange.’ It’s risky, it’s dirty, it’s unethical. It’s just not how foreign policy works.”
She casts back in her memory for a similar scandal. She mentions Iran-Contra from the Reagan Administration, in which the U.S. secretly sold weapons to Iran and used the proceeds to illegally fund terroristic Nicaraguan rebels known as the Contras. She mentions Watergate, President Nixon and his crew’s series of “dirty tricks” against the Democratic Party—one international scandal and one domestic. “Merge the two,” Chemali says, “and that’s what you have.”
On October 7, 2019, Chemali awoke in her typical fashion: “The first thing I do is grab my phone—because it’s my alarm—and I have one eye open and I’m kind of scrolling.” This morning she was greeted with a barrage of news alerts and requests to appear on TV. “I shot up from bed and I’m like, ‘What did he do this time?’” Late the previous evening, the White House had announced that Trump was withdrawing American troops from northern Syria, the de facto homeland of our allies the Kurds, clearing the way for a Turkish invasion against the Kurds, who would be slaughtered, displaced from their homes, or both. Politicians left, right and center, not to mention our highest ranking retired military leaders, decried Trump’s betrayal of the Kurds. “I couldn’t believe it,” Chemali says when we meet again, in October. “I couldn’t believe Trump had been steamrolled like that by Turkey.” She shakes her head. “In the last few weeks I really don’t know what’s happened. But he’s gone off the deep end on our foreign policy, and it’s painful. How are we going to get allies to trust us in the future?”
Chemali calls Trump’s move “criminal,” a harsh word given her usual moderation, but she believes it’s justified. “The Kurds were instrumental in the defeat of ISIS,” she says. “They were the ones who were on the ground,” losing 11,000 of their fighters to our six. Though this is not the first time the U.S. has betrayed an ally, Chemali continues, “This is one of the worst examples. Just ugly. Leaving them when they’d done us a solid—and leaving them to something we knew was their assured death. That’s why I say it’s criminal. We always knew that if the Americans were to leave, we’d be paving the way for a Turkish massacre.” The decision to reassign some American troops to guard Syrian oil fields is a tacit admission that we need a presence there after all—“but it’s oil that he cares about, not human catastrophes.”
Chemali’s government sources told her there was “a sense of chaos, of desperation,” after Trump’s decision; then came the aftershock of his insulting rhetoric. The Kurds were “not angels,” he claimed; what’s more they didn’t help us during the Second World War (then as now, the Kurds had no state, but curiously enough, some Kurds actually did fight alongside the allied forces). The “insanity and the ignorance” of those comments took Chemali’s breath away, defying her habit of closely reasoned assessment. Meanwhile, as the threat of a massacre loomed, Trump dispatched Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara. “What they ended up doing was getting steamrolled again,” Chemali says. “They just bent over and gave Turkey what it wanted”—a twenty-mile buffer zone inside Syria, or much of the Kurdish homeland, as if it were theirs to give.
Chemali views the betrayal of the Kurds as more than a dereliction of moral duty; it was also an epic strategic blunder. “You’re taking a very stable situation—stable for that part of the world—and completely destabilizing it.” Our enterprise in Syria was never in danger of becoming an “endless war” à la Iraq, as Trump seemed to think, but was rather a way of keeping ISIS at bay. “We already know that one of the camps manned by the Kurds, a camp that was holding ISIS fighters and ISIS families—we know that hundreds of fighters, maybe thousands, all broke free,” Chemali says. “The danger that’s going to pose! And any analyst knew it would happen. You’re undoing years of good work.” Sure enough, in late November, the U.S. was obliged to resume large-scale military operations against ISIS in northern Syria. (This despite the death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who blew himself up as U.S. special forces surrounded him on October 27. It had been Kurdish spies who tracked down Baghdadi.)
The Kurds, now without protection, had little choice but to strike a deal with the reprehensible Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad: “It was kill or be killed.” Worse yet, the United States ceded what influence it had in this part of the world to Iran and Russia. “The Syrian government is allied with Russia and Iran super-closely, and so you’re allowing all this influence back into a region they weren’t in,” Chemali says. “Russia and Iran are the biggest winners in this whole thing—our adversaries.”
GREENWICH TO D.C
Chemali was born in Greenwich somewhat by accident. Her parents, Mirella and Hadi Hajjar, both from Beirut, fled Lebanon’s civil war in 1981—a war during which Hadi and his brother had been kidnapped and brutally beaten as part of a decades-old vendetta. (Though Lebanon is fractured by religion, it is also fractured within religions: both the Hajjars and their kidnappers were Christian.) A noted Lebanese journalist, Ghassan Tueni, and his journalist-politician son, Gebran, who was later assassinated for speaking out against Syrian meddling in Lebanon, had intervened to secure Hajjar’s release—on the condition that he and his brother leave the country for good.
Mirella and Hadi toured the world for three months. Intending to settle in Milan, they were visiting friends in Greenwich when Mirella, five months pregnant, developed complications. “She couldn’t travel until I was born,” says Hagar. “So I like to say that I chose Greenwich.” Hagar grew up infused with her parents’ American ardor. “They used to tell me I could be who I want to be, say what I want to say. They used to reinforce it every day: ‘Never forget, you are so lucky to be an American.’ Of course, they had seen the horrors of another world.” Mirella is a photographer and photography historian who curates art shows at the Beaux Arts Gallery at Round Hill Community Church. And Hadi, after a failed foray into the toy business, found his mojo as an importer of discount wares. Today he and Mirella live on a picturesque lane in the backcountry.
While a student at Greenwich Academy, Hagar showed a surprisingly mature passion for foreign affairs (a passion she now believes evolved from family stories of exile and repression dating back to the Ottoman Empire). Noticing this, a history teacher suggested she join the Model United Nations. She did and was hooked; at age fourteen she set her sights on a career in conflict resolution and peacekeeping at the U.N. She went on to study political science and international affairs at Barnard and Columbia, and finally interned at the U.N.’s Department of Political Affairs around the time the U.S. invaded Iraq.
There Hagar learned something that would shape her career as a civil servant. She was having coffee with a woman who handled Africa, and this woman lamented that nobody was doing a thing about the genocide unfolding in Darfur, a region in western Sudan. “I remember saying to her, very naively, ‘Why don’t you just write a report to the Security Council, and they can declare a genocide, and then they can all act to put an end to it?’ She just kind of laughed and sat back in her chair and said, ‘If the U.S. won’t lead on an issue, then nothing will happen.’ In that moment, I decided the U.N. was not the place for me. If I wanted to effect change for the better, I had to go to the U.S. government.”
Chemali landed first on the staff of Christopher Shays, the former Republican Congressman from our corner of Connecticut. (“They don’t make them like that anymore,” she remarks. “He was very ethical and all about solving problems.”) Next, in 2006, she went to the Treasury Department’s Office of Terrorist Financing and Financial Crimes (TFFC), a potent but little-known section of government that came into being in 2004 to shut off money streams to terrorists and rogue states. She served as a policy adviser for the Middle East. “I was lucky enough to be part of this small, cutting-edge group that became experts in sanctions,” she says, noting that sanctions, despite their ho-hum reputation, were just then growing into a laser-sharp national security weapon that could achieve devastating results without shedding a drop of blood.
A year into the Obama Administration, Chemali migrated to the National Security Council, sometimes called the president’s personal band of warriors. Her job, as director for Syria and Lebanon, was to formulate policy options that would then rise up the chain of command to top policy makers and the president himself. The NSC is based in the massive, Second Empire-style Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House, but Chemali wore a path to the Situation Room in the White House’s West Wing, especially as the Arab Spring unfolded in 2011. Working in the White House, she says, “There’s never a moment when you’re not in awe. You’re at the center of the world of foreign policy, literally helping to make history.”
Chemali is not above telling an amusing story on herself—this one having to do with the president’s magnetism. “The first time I met Obama, I didn’t know I’d be meeting him. I’m sitting in the Oval Office with the ambassador to Syria, and we’re talking about the torture going on, the indescribable violence. And I’m staring at the president like a giddy fangirl, grinning from ear to ear! I’m not even paying attention. He looks at me—I’ll never forget—he looks at me kind of quizzically, because the ambassador is telling the president about Syrian civilians being marched into a stadium to be detained and tortured, and I’m smiling! When he looks at me, I finally go, ‘Snap out of it, Hagar! Stop being such a fangirl.’”
She was not such a fan, however, of Obama’s Syria policy. As President Assad violently beat back the protests of the Arab Spring—during which citizens all over the Middle East demanded democratic reforms—the U.S. called on Assad to step down and “emptied the kitchen sink” of sanctions. It seemed possible that we would bring down Assad as he found himself entangled in a three-way civil war, against a loose alliance of dissident factions on the one hand and ISIS on the other. “Then the whole situation started to fester, and it was painful.”
Early on Chemali, along with Samantha Power, advocated for a more vigorous intervention, such as targeted military strikes and a no-fly zone to provide safe harbor for refugees. It was not to be. Obama was wary of getting mired in yet another Middle East conflict, and doubtful of the U.S.’s ability to shape a war that was growing insanely complex. The president then suffered a political black eye in declining to enforce his own “red line” after Assad murdered Syrian citizens with chemical weapons.
“For Assad, that was cart blanche to do whatever he wanted,” Chemali says. “I thought it was a disaster, an utter disaster.” Though the U.S. did not respond militarily, it and Russia teamed up to destroy most of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal. But in the end, Chemali says, “We were not leading on the issue. And we did not want to lead on the issue.” (Ambassador Shapiro adds that many in the administration came to regret not taking a more aggressive role.)
During Hagar’s tenure at the NSC, she married Julien Chemali, an American private equity finance executive born in Lebanon. No sooner had they returned from their honeymoon than the Arab Spring broke out; over time, working wild hours on the knotty, ever-compounding problems of the Middle East wore her down. “I couldn’t take the madness anymore,” she allows. Syria in particular made her feel helpless. “It was very hard to handle an issue like Syria and feel like the solution is on your shoulders, and yet you can’t solve it. That may sound silly, but when you’re in it, that’s how you feel.” She pauses to revisit that era in her mind. “There were reports about torture I’ll never forget, images I’ll never forget. It eats away at you. You start to have nightmares.”
Back at Treasury, Chemali became spokesperson for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, the office responsible for sanctions and other inflictions of financial pain (of which the earlier-mentioned TFFC is a part). This job put her on the political side of things, since now she had to make the public case for administration policy rather than hash out policy internally. Natalie Earnest, who hired her as spokesperson, says, “I knew she had the policy piece down, and that alone made her a strong candidate. Reporters want to work with spokespeople who know their stuff. But she’s clearly a ‘people person’—she’s easy to talk to, people enjoy being around her. I could tell she would be a forceful advocate for our policies, but do it with a smile.”
Chemali’s tour as spokesperson came at an extraordinarily busy and sensitive time. “That’s when Russia invaded Crimea and we did the Russia sanctions,” Chemali says. “It’s when we withdrew sanctions from Cuba. It’s when we did counter-ISIS financing strategy. It’s when we did the Iran nuclear deal—I got to work on every little piece of it, focusing on the messaging.” The Obama Administration regarded the Iran accord, though imperfect, as a great success: “Our belief was that we needed to take this one very dangerous thing off the table,” Chemali says of Iran’s then-rapidly developing nuclear capability. This they did, thus thwarting a possible nuclear arms race between Israel and Iran, but knowing that Iran would still fund Hezbollah and other bad actors. (In 2018 Trump exited the Iran accord. Ominously, Iran now claims that it’s ramping up its capacity to produce nuclear material.)
The U.S. Mission to the United Nations, where Chemali served as director of communications and spokesperson—her last job in government—brought her full circle. She notes, with a diffident smile, that she got into public service in the first place “to save the world,” and now she was helping shine a light on human rights abuses everywhere. “Trying to change bad behavior is hard work, but we actually had real results,” she says, among them successful campaigns to improve LGBTQ rights and free female political prisoners in repressive countries. But a picture taken with Samantha Power from that time—2016—tells accurately of her exhaustion as she endured “hellacious” hours while pregnant with her second child. She knew the time had come to leave government life.
Today the Chemalis and their boys—Alexander, six, and Benjamin, four—live in a white clapboard Georgian in mid-country Greenwich, from which Hagar happily makes her own hours at a communications company she founded, Greenwich Media Strategies. Recently she joined the Atlantic Council as a nonresident senior fellow. But Americans will know her best as a national security and foreign affairs commentator on TV.
This role is not without turbulence: Anyone who ventures opinions in the public square, especially in these ornery, divisive times, takes hits. “I’m not going to lie,” she says. “In the beginning it was tough. My husband often tells me, ‘You’ve got to grow a thicker skin.’ When you get a hater, unfortunately the words … you remember them.” But she’s learning to forget them, and those who know her well think she’s where she belongs. “Hagar is a natural for media appearances,” Peter Tanous tells us by email. “Commentators often sound angry or self-righteous on the air. She doesn’t.” He adds, “I can see her getting her own show in the not too distant future.”
As the year drew to a close, the feeling that things were falling apart intensified. Where, in this darkening picture, is America? Does it still stand as a beacon of freedom and hope to people everywhere? Chemali sees our global influence in retreat—in the Middle East, in Africa, in Europe—as Russia and China waltz in to fill the void. She notes the concurrent authoritarian trend, which Trump unaccountably nourishes, and says the two things together constitute an unambiguous peril.
“I hate to say this, but I think the tyrants, right now, are winning, and it’s because no one is pushing back—Trump in particular,” she says. “I am a big believer that where we are not present, where we don’t lead, is where you have the most repression, where you have the most terrorism, where you have the bullies and the dictators and the worst of the world, taking advantage and repressing citizens.”
Meanwhile, a wave of protests swept the globe, from Hong Kong to Beirut, all over Iran, Iraq and Egypt, on to Barcelona, and across the ocean to South America. People made bonfires in the streets, and smoke billowed into the air like signals of distress. Chemali would be busy. Still, despite the turbulence, despite the democratic uprisings and brutal put-downs, she remains hopeful. “History has taught us that, globally, every country or region has gone through some really dark times and overcome them,” she says. “Look at the end of the Cold War. Look at the civil rights movement in the United States—that wasn’t so long ago in the grand scheme of things. Look at the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
“As optimistic as I am, I can see that democracy and the values that come with it—freedom of expression, freedom of the press, basic human rights, freedom of religion—take a lot of hard work to fight for and maintain. But I believe strongly that when people peacefully unite in masses for the same cause, then they are successful.”