As the Senate considers Senator Chuck Hagel’s nomination to be Secretary of Defense, GJIA presents a timely interview with Chuck Hagel from his time as a Distinguished Professor in the Practice of National Governance at Georgetown University on his view of the evolving international landscape and America’s role in the world.
GJIA: Congressional approval ratings continue to sag to alarmingly low rates. Accusations of groups more concerned with partisan politics than supporting the American people continue to fly. What is going wrong in Washington?
Hagel: The Republicans have hung onto this mantra of no new taxes. They think that we can get our way out of this fourteen trillion dollar mess solely by cutting spending. That kind of obstinacy is failing the country at a critical time. We are living in the most historic and unprecedented diffusion of economic power that has ever existed. It is not a matter of us falling back, but rather a matter more of other countries catching up—countries that we should embrace and work with. That means more stability, more security, more markets for us, and better relationships in the world. We have to adjust to a new paradigm of reality. A new world order is being built right now. I am not sure the leaders of this country understand that. We are defining a twenty first century world.
The last time we did this was right after World War II. There are different dynamics now. Back then we [United States] essentially wrote the world plan because there was no one else. Every other economy was in shambles. That is not the way it is being rewritten today. The old paradigms are not accurate anymore because of globalization and technology. But you know, we will get through this. The United States is better than what we are seeing. America deserves better, and America will demand better of its leaders.
GJIA: You certainly seem to hold a lot of faith in the U.S. system. How can the government regain the trust of the nation and work cohesively to produce effective policy, both domestic and foreign?
Hagel: Well first, leaders lead through a currency of trust and confidence. When that currency has been debased or lost, a nation flounders. Trust is not just an indispensable part of leadership, but also a part of a society. Every institution in this country is presently at its lowest recorded confidence level since polling began. You get those numbers back up by first engaging with the people in a very clear, open, and honest way. You do it by putting forth options and proposals on how to fix the problem. You do not regain the confidence of the people by continuing to try to debase the opposing party. You listen more; you show tolerance. This idea of a zero-sum game, “I’m right, you’re wrong” is complete nonsense. Democracies only work through a consensus, they cannot work any other way. Leaders have to reach out, listen, cooperate, and be brutally honest about where we are with our big problems. They need to find common interests and avenues where they can work with all of the political constituencies to fix the problem at hand.
A new world order is being built right now. I am not sure the leaders of this country understand that. We are defining a twenty first century world.
GJIA: Improved political leadership does seem to be necessary to United States’ recovery of governmental trust. In that light, of the current Republican hopefuls, who do you think has the best vision for the United States? Who do you think deserves the Republican Party nomination?
Hagel: My quick, succinct, easy answer is “I don’t know.” That is why you have primaries; that is why you have a lengthy process. There is a lot of nonsense that floats in and out. The media is responsible for a good deal of that with the silly questions they ask. But the system does work; in the end it generally produces probably the best suited and best qualified candidates.
As we get closer to the actual Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, candidates will be forced to get out their real plans and ideas regarding how we should deal with the kind of foreign policies that have gotten very little attention thus far. Especially at a time like this when our economy is in trouble, our focus is always going to be domestic first. We really haven’t heard much from the candidates about what are we going to do about the Middle East. And are we going to stay in Afghanistan? What are we going to do about Iraq and Pakistan and Iran and North Korea? There is a long way to go.
I have not engaged in any political activities and nor do I intend to over the next year. Now I observe, and I have my opinions and thoughts, but I think it is really up to the voters and we will see what happens.
GJIA: Examining past presidencies for comparison, you were highly critical of President Bush’s “ping-pong” foreign policy. Has the Obama administration’s actions been comparable or do you think the President has utilized a more consistent strategy?
Hagel: Obama has been more consistent. I think he has reached out in a more diplomatic and restrained manner. I think one thing that is painful for a great nation like the United States, made especially apparent during the Bush years, is the temptation to overreach. Every empire in the history of man has come undone because it overreached. We ran up more than six trillion dollars in debt in the last ten years fighting the two longest wars in the history of our nation. This is the first time in our history that we have fought wars without tax increases. We did this to ourselves. I always thought that our foreign policy was wrong in that we never thought through what the ultimate objective of these endeavors was. The 2007 Iraq War “surge” is a good example of this confusion. There was very little question that if we overloaded the zone with superior American firepower, no one in the world resist, but what was the strategic objective? We confused tactical victory with strategic objectives. You need tactics to get to your strategic objective, but it was not good enough to reply with “Well we’re going to bring democracy to Iraq.” No nation is capable of doing that. We should have learned that from Vietnam at the very least. If the government is going to commit a nation to war, it had better be damn clear where its interests lie. We never really were. We either lied or misrepresented Iraq. That is why I absolutely believe that declaring war is a vital facet of the engagement process. We have not declared war since December 1941. It would sober up those who have the constitutional responsibility–Congress, not the President–to the reality of committing our nation to conflict.
GJIA: Speaking of Iraq, you have also been a vocal critic of this protracted conflict since its inception. Do you think that President Obama has made the right decision to end our engagement?
Hagel: The Bush Administration signed the Status of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government, so President Obama is just following that mandate. There were questions: Do we leave troops? How many? What will their mission be? He [President Obama] had to deal with those. But I think he made exactly the right decisions. The future of Iraq will be determined by the Iraqi people. It will not be determined by our troops or by us. The most we can do for any country is to assist it in taking control of its own destiny, whether it is Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. We cannot impose democracy, we cannot impose Western values, and we cannot impose market economies. These orders work well for us, I strongly believe in them, and I think the world would be better off if we had more, but the decision to pursue such direction is ultimately up to the people of the countries in question. Every history, culture, and nation is different, and we have run into a lot of trouble when we try to dictate. President Bush, who I like very much and get along with personally, said that we were going to bring democracy to Iraq, that it would flower, and that we would soon have democracies all over the Middle East. I thought that very peculiar. Other than Israel, all of our strongest allies in the Middle East are monarchies: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, and the Gulf states. I always wonder what the kings thought of that statement. Regardless, we have learned a very painful, difficult lesson over the last ten years. We paid a high price in blood and treasure and undermined our own interests in the world.
That is why I absolutely believe that declaring war is a vital facet of the engagement process. We have not declared war since December 1941. It would sober up those who have the constitutional responsibility–Congress, not the President–to the reality of committing our nation to conflict.
GJIA: Regarding the United States’ other war, you have described the U.S. role in Afghanistan as one of nation building—a drastic deviation from its initial intentions there. Given the U.S. history in the region, dating back to the 1970s, how can it safely extract itself upon fulfilling its objectives, while simultaneously assuring that the infrastructure left behind is not left vulnerable to extremist encroachment as it was in the 1980s?
Hagel: You cannot guarantee anything unless you want to keep troops there indefinitely. And it cannot just be five or ten thousand; Afghanistan is a big country. We fulfilled the original objective and mission in taking the Taliban out of power and assuring as much as possible that al-Qaeda had no training camps within two years. You have to factor in the reality of the long term. You cannot sustain bases and 100,000 troops, while NATO has 50,000 and none of them ever wanted to be in there. Ultimately, it is all up to the Afghani people. We are doing as much as we can to help them build up their own country, but in the end, we have a very limited capacity. All you need to do is to go there a couple of times, spend a few days flying around, and you start to understand the historical, cultural, and tribal realities. One of the first things we did when we landed in Afghanistan is take the different militias–the Northern Alliance, the Pashtuns–arm them and try to patch an alliance together. Each one of those alliances responded in their own self-interest, which is predictable. We never really understood that. We gave them new arms. We gave them money. It was the same thing we did in with the Sunni Awakening. We gave young Sunnis five hundred dollars a month not to kill us. We put 130,000 young Sunni warriors, who were killing us up to that point, on our payroll for two or three years. And our leaders never leveled with the American public. There was no tactical point. The longer you stay, the deeper your investment becomes. Every six months, the generals, just like those in Vietnam, would say, “We’re making good progress, but it’s very fragile. We’re going to need more time, more troops, and more money.” It is now the eleventh year in Afghanistan, and the ninth year in Iraq that we are finally leaving.
GJIA: Pakistan clearly has significant influence on the complex dynamics you discuss. In 2009, the Atlantic Council endorsed the Kerry-Lugar Bill, saying that it was vital to stability in Pakistan. What do you think about that level of financial assistance from the United States? Should it be maintained or is it time for the United States to realize, given recent developments, that Pakistan is “The Ally from Hell?” What should be the U.S. government’s future engagement with the Pakistani regime and military?
Hagel: The Kerry-Lugar Bill was actually the Biden-Kerry-Hagel Bill. The three of us were in Pakistan to monitor the elections in 2008, and that is when we wrote the legislation. When I decided to not seek reelection, I essentially handed it off to [Senator Richard] Lugar as he agreed with what we were trying to do.
First, you have got to recognize the reality in Pakistan. I do not think there is any way the United States can just discontinue relations with Pakistan. I do not see how that would be in our interest. The intersection of China, India, and Pakistan is the most dangerous in the world. Three nuclear powers—all unpredictable, especially Pakistan—with cultural hatreds, religious hatreds, and tribal hatreds, render the geopolitical dynamics of the region more combustible than any other place on the planet. All this has to be factored in. We cannot just walk away from such a relationship. We also cannot have troops in Pakistan, for obvious reasons. We work in other ways: through assistance programs, through training programs, and through mutual exchange programs.
In 1985, the United States cut off all military relationships with Pakistan for thirteen years because they had tested a nuclear weapon and not told us. This period hurt us far worse than it did Pakistan because we lost any influence over the situation there. Relationships with foreign military officers are vital.
For example, in the Egyptian revolution many of the generals were trained in the United States. Our officers, Mike Mullen and others, could call those top generals and tell them, “General, you don’t want to turn the machine guns on those people in Cairo. You know better than that.” The problem is that this thirteen-year period produced all the current generals in Pakistan. General [Ashfaq Parvez] Kayani is the last one there we can deal with. To say that this situation is not ideal would be a gross understatement.
Recently, I did not think it was very wise to publically embarrass the Pakistan foreign ministry in front of its own people—it is never the right course of action. We have an incredible amount to lose if things come undone in Pakistan. We get almost all of our provisions into Afghanistan through Pakistan. Our supply route starts in Karachi. Then we pay off all the bandits along the way, but we do not tell the American public that. Ever so often, they will destroy fifteen tankers just to let us know that we are behind on their payments or that they are still in charge. We are completely at their mercy. These complex dynamics make Pakistan the most difficult foreign policy problem we have.
We put 130,000 young Sunni warriors, who were killing us up to that point, on our payroll for two or three years. And our leaders never leveled with the American public.
GJIA: In summation, given all you have discussed on present U.S. engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan and our more recent actions in states like Libya and Uganda, what direction should United States’ policy on protecting global civilians from genocide and war crimes take in the coming years?
Hagel: Every country is different. Every situation is unique. As a country, we focus on where we can have the most influence to do what we can to protect human rights. We focus on how we can best affect that change through the present internal institutions, allies, and regional powers. In some cases, military action operation is appropriate. Libya is a good example of this, though there was great debate within NATO about engagement. Some of the biggest NATO members, including Germany and Poland, were absolutely opposed to direct intervention. The lesson we have learned is that we have limitations to our power. People ask me, “Why doesn’t the President do something about Syria?” What would you have him to do? Do you want him to go to war with Syria? Do you want him to bomb Syria? Do you want him to send troops to Syria? We do not have any troops left anywhere. You have to figure out each situation based on its own dynamics. [Former Secretary of State] Madeleine Albright’s famous toolbox concept certainly applies here. We have to figure out how to use the tools at our disposal to affect a desirable outcome. Not all tools will fit all situations. We have to be wise and smart. And, most importantly, we have to be prudent. We cannot fix it all.
There are massacres going on around the world, especially in Eastern Africa. Why does not the United States do something? How can we stop all of the terrible crises the people of this world face every day? Should we bomb the capital? Should we send in Marines? Where do you go with this? It is a very tough deal. The only answer I can give is we have to try to influence every situation and outcome as best as we can within the realm of the limitations of our capacity. The last ten years have taught us a pretty tough lesson about expanding our reach too far. It exacts a horrible toll upon the young men and women who serve in our armed forces for five, six, or even seven rotating tours back into combat zones. We have never before had such practices in the history of our country. It has resulted in record suicide rates, divorces, spousal abuse, and home foreclosures for those getting out of the military. That is the reality. The politicians and the military do not want to talk about that, but that is a consequence of getting overcommitted and not factoring in our limitations.
GJIA: That said, the United States need not necessarily shoulder this weighty burden alone. How do you think cooperation with the United Nations should factor into the decision making process you have just described?
Hagel: All the good work that the UN does is critically important to the world. Surely it is imperfect like any institution, but we have to work through that. And we do. The United States was the godfather of the United Nations and will continue to support its ideals to the best of its capacity.
Chuck Hagel was interviewed by Michael Brannagan, Sikander Kiani, and William Handel on 9 November 2011.