Former U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel

The former senator—and senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations committee—shares his thoughts on the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and Syria.

After serving two terms in the U.S. Senate (1997-2009), Chuck Hagel went into academia, teaching at Georgetown University. He also chairs the Atlantic Council nonpartisan public policy group. A fourth-generation Nebraskan, he was the state's senior senator and a key member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees. He's also a highly decorated Vietnam combat vet and former deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration. Prior to his election, Hagel co-founded Vanguard Cellular and was president of an Omaha-based investment banking firm.


Tavis: Tonight, though, on this busy news day around the world, pleased to be joined by Chuck Hagel. Of course, the decorated Vietnam combat vet earned two Purple Hearts during his service, going on to serve in the U.S. Senate for 12 years.

During his time in the Senate he was both a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and the intelligence committee. He now serves as the chairman of the Atlantic Council and is a professor at Georgetown.

So he joins us tonight from Washington. Senator Hagel, good to have you back on this program, sir.

Chuck Hagel: Tavis, thank you.

Tavis: So much news today that I want to get to first. Let me jump right in with Syria. So we have closed down our embassy there, we’ve told Americans to get out. Your thoughts tonight on the deteriorating relationship with Syria, and specifically what’s happening now inside the country.

Hagel: Well, these are very, very difficult, delicate and complicated issues, Tavis. The United States, or any one nation does not have the ability to change or to control events, and I think we saw that very clearly over the last 12 months in Tunisia and Egypt as well as Libya and Bahrain, other countries.

But what we can do is continue to work with our allies, with the alliances there, representing the Middle East, the Arab League, United Nations, our efforts diplomatically, working with our very close NATO ally and friend, Turkey. These are combustible and interconnected dynamics that unfortunately do not present an easy way out.

The only way to do this is to continue to put as much pressure through every dynamic and possibility in control we have to bring this to a peaceful conclusion, and I think that’s going to require, as our president has said, and others, that Assad is removed from his position of power governing that country, and hopefully then bring some new stability back, which will take some time.

Tavis: There are some asking tonight why not go into Syria? The numbers, of course, vary, but if there are 6,000 folk who’ve already been killed by the Assad government, why not go into Syria as we did with, say, Libya?

Hagel: Well, we never really went into Libya. We had some of the NATO members use their more sophisticated equipment, like drones and air power –

Tavis: Right.

Hagel: – to essentially debase Qaddafi’s forces. But the people on the ground were the people themselves. Now, the Syrian people are going to need assistance, that’s right, but we, again, are somewhat restricted in what our options are.

But again, this is why working with the alliance, working with the Arab League and others in supporting the people there as every situation’s different, but whatever we can do.

I think you also have to connect this to the situation in Iran. That entire Middle East is as combustible and unpredictable as we’ve seen certainly since World War II and maybe ever. Technology drives that, has driven much of it, globalization, and it’s very interesting, Tavis, to me and all of those countries, and I’ve named some of them, that these are revolutions going on with our leader. They’re leaderless, doctrineless revolutions. It’s the people from the bottom that are resisting.

And it I think points up once again that the human dimension, the human dynamic, will always control and eventually dictate the outcome of countries. It’s painful, it’s unfair, there’s a tremendous amount of bloodshed, but we’ve got to work our way through this in a smart way too.

Tavis: I agree with your assessment of these leaderless revolutions. Is that something you celebrate?

Hagel: Well, I think it is something to celebrate because it is the people; it is the individual that is rising up. It’s not a Mao, it’s not a Lenin, it’s not a Castro, or on the other side it’s not a Mandela. But this is coming from the baseline of the population of the people. They’ve had enough.

Every one of those countries that we’ve seen rise up and the revolutions be produced in the last 12 months have been that way. Now, that also facilitates more complications as well, because we don’t have an identifiable leader. You have mixtures of all kinds of secular and tribal and historic, and in some cases there’s a bad element mixed in with this, which we’ve seen in all those countries. So it makes the whole equation more complicated and more difficult

Tavis: It raises that age-old question – what’s worse, the enemy we know or the enemy that we don’t know.

Hagel: Well, in the end, we must always stand for and we must always look to the future in the interest of individual freedom. The individual always must come first, and partly why I think we’re in a situation like we’re in today, certainly in Egypt and some of these other countries, is that over the years the United States and other allies have sometimes opted-out for well, let’s go with the secure equation here rather than democracy or rather than freedom.

But again, it has to come from within. The United States can’t impose democracies. We can’t impose our will. The Russians found that out in Afghanistan. We’ve been involved in two very costly wars that have taught us a lesson once again. We tried it in Vietnam, it didn’t work.

It never will work. Eventually, the people will make the decisions that they must make. So we must always be on the right side here, and that’s for the individual and for freedom.

Tavis: You mentioned Egypt a moment ago, Senator Hagel, and I’m going to talk on this program tomorrow night with a young man named Wael Ghonim, one of the young persons, former Google executive, who was one of the persons responsible for making this protest go viral – that is to say on his Facebook page, one of the early persons to really start to put some comments out there that got people thinking and make, again, these uprisings start to take on a new life in Egypt.

We’ll talk to him tomorrow night on the occasion of a new book called “Revolution 2.0,” and I hope to get into this conversation with him tomorrow night. But since you’ve raised it tonight, this notion of the U.S. making decisions, oftentimes based on our so-called “strategic interest” rather than on our values, Egypt comes to mind.

We’ve been a friend of Mubarak through six different presidents, and finally he gets toppled, to your point now, by the people. Talk to me about the difficult decision-making in a place like Washington when one is trying to balance one’s strategic needs with values, and why so often the former beats out the latter?

Hagel: Well, I think partly, and you framed it exactly right, Tavis, there are many competing interests, and foreign policy is never exact. It’s always about alternatives. It’s also about the immediate versus the future.

When you’re dealing in situations that are uncontrollable and combustible, you try to stabilize the situation as quickly as you can and then work toward and work out toward democratic reform.

That works only if you continue to work out toward democratic reform and keep pressure on the leaders of these countries as those countries become more secure and stable.

But the other part of, I think at least my answer to your question is the reality of the immediacy of the option. The immediacy of the immediate interest. Let’s take that first interest we have and put a priority on that. Then we’ll deal with the rest of the interest as we have time.

There’s no perfect way to do this. It’s very imperfect. We are juggling and balancing all the time competing interests. But in the end, countries, the world, must know that we are anchored by a system of values, a system of expectations and standards that the people’s interest must always come first.

We’re imperfect. Institutions are imperfect. Governments surely are. People are. When you look at the mistakes we’ve made, Tavis, at least in my opinion, our country, since World War II, it’s when we have cut loose of those values and those standards and move toward a more immediate interest. In the end, we’ll always lose.

Tavis: What, then – I want to tie these two things together, since you did so already – what, then, are the lessons that it appears to you that we have perhaps learned? I know I’ve qualified it a lot, but what are the lessons that it appears to you that we’ve perhaps learned vis-à-vis Syria now from the mistakes we made with Egypt when they saw us bouncing back and forth every day.

And I say “us,” I mean our government, the Obama White House, the Clinton State Department. They saw us on any given day and they couldn’t figure out whether we were for Mubarak staying or for Mubarak leaving.

Are we with him, are we with the people? What did we learn from Egypt that we can now apply in Syria, or the way we’re dealing with Syria?

Hagel: Well, one thing we learned was that each situation is different and it’s complicated, it’s interconnected, and you deal with all those uncontrollables – you have to – at the same time.

But in the end, if a nation’s word is not believed, in the end, if a nation is not anchored by a set of values that people can not only rely on but trust and know that that’s where we draw the line, then our policies will be very vacuous and our policies will not be taken as serious.

That doesn’t mean that you opt for a military solution. We can’t in every case. Again, I would point to Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan as good examples. But working with various groups, getting ahead of what’s coming. That’s the other part of this, is an anticipation of what is coming, what’s ahead.

And the other part of that is is withdrawing from some of the – for example, the Middle East peace process. The Israeli-Palestinian issue, which has been going on for many, many years, that in and of itself, is not going to solve every problem in the Middle East, but it would certainly bring us to some high ground if we could make some progress on that issue as well as others.

Point being, I use that as an example that trying to facilitate and make progress on these bigger issues that always roll back down to a dictator, for example, Mubarak. He was essentially our dictator, but he was a dictator. And so what’s happening in Egypt tonight, today, is result of that dictatorship that we kind of just rolled along with.

Now, it’s not our fault, it’s not the United States to blame. We all, the international community, all have to take some responsibility. But those are things that we’ve learned and we’ll always learn.

Tavis: You keep setting me up so nicely and I appreciate this, you’re making my job pretty easy tonight by raising issues that I wanted to ask you about anyway. Since you’re connecting those dots so nicely, let me continue to follow you.

So a moment ago you raised the issue of Israel and Palestine. The issue tonight, since Israel and Palestine, to your point, is always a perennial issue, as we sit tonight for this conversation, the issue is really about Israel and Iran and whether or not Israel is going to strike, whether they feel that they need to strike, and if they were in fact to strike, what would be our position in that process; B, your thoughts.

Hagel: Well, I think the Obama administration, as was the situation with the Bush administration and prior to that the Clinton administration and the senior Bush administration, have followed the right line on this, and particularly this administration over the last two years as it regards to Iran.

I don’t know of one individual who’s had responsibility for intelligence, for military, for statecraft in any serious way in either the Middle East, the United States, Europe or Israel who would say, who has said, that an Israeli strike at Iran would be the best solution, and we ought to look seriously at that.

No. This is, again, I think, an example of an international community coming together, as we have, with sanctions, tightening, tightening, tightening. That’s only one part of this.

The second part is inside Iran there’s great combustibility. There’s great uncertainty. Their inflation rate is maybe 20, 30 percent. The people themselves are being squeezed by this leadership. Third, Iran is not a monolithic power. Ahmadinejad says things that make no sense, I accept that, but you have the Supreme Leader, you have the Supreme Council, you’ve got different power bases within Iran.

It is my opinion, and I think the opinion of most people, including this administration, I think the Bush administration, that a military strike at Iran now would be a terrible mistake because we don’t know what, then, the consequences would be.

We could unleash a tremendous, combustible Armageddon in the Middle East. Now, as the president has said, this president, Obama, you look at all the options that great powers have and your alliances have. I don’t think we’re there yet, but now to get to the answer to your question, what happens if Israel strikes Iran, well, I’m not near smart enough to be able to tell you exactly how that all plays out, but as to how it affects the United States, it would drag the United States into a situation where we have a relationship with Israel, it would drag other nations into this conflagration, which could completely get out of hand.

You’re talking about a world economy; you’re talking about hundreds of millions of people, possibilities. These things have a tendency to completely get well beyond the ability for any nation or even set of nations to control once those forces start. So right now I think the Obama administration is saying, doing the right things with our allies.

Tavis: So while we’re walking on eggshells, as it were, about what might happen between Israel and Iran, we have to deal with what we already engaged in; hence, Afghanistan.

Defense Secretary Panetta has made it clear of late that there is a new timetable in Afghanistan as he sees it. How do you assess that new timetable in Afghanistan?

Hagel: Well, I know that that has subjected the secretary and the administration to a lot of new questions, but I think we’ve got to look at a couple of realities here, Tavis. This is our 11th year in Afghanistan, and that reality is washing over a nation’s ability to continue to sustain that war. America’s polling numbers on this are pretty clear on the American people want out, as do other nations that are now our NATO allies.

In the end, it will be the Afghanistan people that will have to decide what kind of a government they want and what they want to do. Then the other part of this that you’ve not mentioned is Pakistan. Pakistan is the most important and critical element in this entire equation, for I think the reasons most people understand.

I think at this point, and I think Panetta and the president, they’re right in the direction they’re taking this, is to accelerate that combat timeline, withdrawing NATO and American forces out of there and down eventually, because an international peace conference is probably what’s going to be required here.

When I say an international peace conference, I mean the Paks. I think you’re going to have to bring the Iranians into this. Certainly the Taliban’s going to have to be in it, the government of Afghanistan, we are, others.

I don’t know how else you resolve this, and this is going to go on for a while. This isn’t going to be resolved with just one peace treaty. But the continuation of the path that we’re on now is only going to make it worse. We have a situation in Pakistan where we are right on the cusp of losing an ally in a very serious way.

We don’t want that to happen, because then we come loose of all of our diplomatic moorings when that happens, and as you say, we’ve still got 90,000 troops in Afghanistan, Iran’s on the other side. Iraq is having very, very big difficulties. That entire area is so combustible and dangerous right now.

So this again is an example of how we’ve got to be careful how we thread our way through this. Think strategically, not tactically.

Tavis: I’m kind of chuckling here on the inside in the studio here in L.A. because you mentioned that I didn’t mention Pakistan. I didn’t mention because I figured, Senator Hagel, that you might, and since I’ve been following you all night, let me continue to follow you on the line of questioning that you’re opening up for me so nicely, which I appreciate.

Since you mention Pakistan, let me ask a couple of questions about that. Number one, what do you make of the fact that President Obama has used – and you referenced this earlier – has used more drones, has dropped more drones, manless drones, in Pakistan, significantly more than even President Bush did?

Oftentimes women and children innocently killed. But just assess for me – you’re a veteran, a decorated Vietnam veteran – your assessment of what it means when our foreign policy starts to rely now on these drones, and we see the kind of frequency of use like we see right now in Pakistan?

Hagel: Well, any time you resort to a new kinetic weapon or a new option, drones in this case, there’s going to be continued controversy, especially, as you note, with the frequency of the use of those.

Because what we have now, and you may have noted today the North Koreans have a drone, the Chinese do, the Russians do, probably a dozen countries, that this is going to be a new dynamic of warfare from here on out.

This brings with it a lot of new legal questions, international law questions, assassination questions. So yes, all those new sets of challenges and questions come with this force.

Tavis: Let me cut in right quick, Senator, because one of the things I want to just point out here while you’re on this – you’re right to lay out this list of these new challenges. One of those challenges, to my mind, is what Congress has to say about this. This is, to your phrase, a new kind of warfare, and to my mind, this has not as yet been debated in Congress, where you used to serve.

The White House is making decisions, whether it’s Bush or Obama, to drop these drones, but as an American taxpayer, as an American citizen, I have not seen hearings as yet – nothing has happened on the Hill yet to talk about whether or not this is the path forward, because I thought Congress had something to say about declaring war, but that’s exactly what these drones have become – a new way to declare war without declaring war.

Hagel: Well, the Congress’s absence from declaring war is not new, as you know. We’ve been absent for the last 12, 15 years on all of this. But sticking with your point on drones, everything you said is exactly right, and you are going to see the Congress open up hearings, there’s no doubt about it.

They’ll have to, because you’re talking about the CIA now having control of drones. They operate under a title 50 of our code, title 10 the Defense Department, more open, operates under that authorization.

All the questions you’ve mentioned are going to have to be debated out, they are going to have to be laid out. The American people are going to have to have something to say about this as the Congress is their representative. It needs to be done and it will be done.

Tavis: My time with you is just about up and I’ve got so many more things I would love to talk to you about, so we’ll do this again as we do from time to time. We can grab a hold to you. But given that we’re in the midst of a presidential campaign, a bit of a non-sequitur but maybe not, because foreign policy increasingly is going to have to be discussed on the campaign trail along with these domestic issues.

Your sense of the nominee that your party may be putting up to run against Mr. Obama? At the moment it looks like Mr. Romney might be that man. Your thoughts?

Hagel: Well, I hope that as we see the process play out that the issues that you and I have talked about tonight, Tavis, will get far more serious debate with serious solutions, and not these kind of glancing blow, “Well, if I’m president, I won’t let Iran do this or I won’t let China do this.”

That’s all interesting for red meat on the campaign trail. That’s not dealing with the serious and dangerous issues that our president, whoever that president is going to be over the next four years is going to be dealing with.

We need a lot more serious debate and high-level discussion from our candidates than what we’re getting, and I hope we’ll get that.

Tavis: Well, there are a number of people who hoped a couple years ago, when you left the Senate, that you might be one of those candidates for high office; namely, this one. You chose obviously not to run this time around, but I’m always delighted to have you on this program to talk about these important issues, and I thank you for your time Senator Hagel.

Hagel: Tavis, thank you for having me.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. We’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., and keep the faith.

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Last modified: August 29, 2012 at 11:47 pm