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Chuck Hagel: America shouldn’t be in the lead on Syria, not time to attack Iran

The American people are weary of war and aren’t up for another military adventure in either Syria or Iran, former Nebraska senator and potential defense secretary Chuck Hagel told The Cable. Hagel sat down for a 90-minute exclusive interview in his Georgetown office in May, well before President Barack Obama began vetting him for a ...

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The American people are weary of war and aren't up for another military adventure in either Syria or Iran, former Nebraska senator and potential defense secretary Chuck Hagel told The Cable.

Hagel sat down for a 90-minute exclusive interview in his Georgetown office in May, well before President Barack Obama began vetting him for a top national security position in his second-term cabinet, perhaps to replace Leon Panetta at the Pentagon.

In previously unreleased portions of that interview, Hagel commented on how the United States should move forward in Syria and Iran, urging caution, patience, and a focus on multilateral diplomacy.

The American people are weary of war and aren’t up for another military adventure in either Syria or Iran, former Nebraska senator and potential defense secretary Chuck Hagel told The Cable.

Hagel sat down for a 90-minute exclusive interview in his Georgetown office in May, well before President Barack Obama began vetting him for a top national security position in his second-term cabinet, perhaps to replace Leon Panetta at the Pentagon.

In previously unreleased portions of that interview, Hagel commented on how the United States should move forward in Syria and Iran, urging caution, patience, and a focus on multilateral diplomacy.

"I think we’ve got to be very wise and careful on this and continue to work with the multilateral institutions in the lead in Syria. I don’t think America wants to be in the lead on this," he said. "What you have to do is manage the problem. You manage it to a higher ground of possible solutions, ultimately to try to get to a resolution. You don’t have control over what’s going on in Syria."

"You’ve got to be patient, smart, wise, manage the problem," he said.

The Obama administration has resisted intervention in Syria based on the risk that arming the opposition directly could fuel the fire and out of concern that establishing a no-fly zone would require a major U.S. commitment with uncertain results.

Hagel said he agreed with that policy, and urged caution and patience when dealing with the Syrian crisis — though it’s worth reiterating that these remarks were made in May.

"I don’t think I’d do anything different from what the Obama administration is doing. I think they are handling this responsibly and working with everybody. It’s frustrating; it’s maddening. I get all that. But we’re still in the longest war in American history and our standing in that part of the world is not that good," he said.

Hagel believes that the world is moving toward more diffused power structure where the United States no longer remains the single unchallenged superpower. That, combined with America’s internal problems and the desire for Americans to end over a decade of war, points to the need for a diplomatic solution in Syria, he said.

"We’ve got to understand great-power limitations. There are so many uncontrollable variables at play in Syria and the Middle East," Hagel said. "You work through the multilateral institutions that are available, the U.N., the Arab league. The last thing you want is an American-led or Western-led invasion into Syria."

On Iran, Hagel said that polls available at the time showed that the vast majority of both Americans and Israelis didn’t think it wise for Israel to attack Iran in the near term. There’s plenty more time to seek a diplomatic solution, he said.

"The two options — attack Iran or live with a nuclear-armed Iran — may be eventually where we are. But I believe most people in both Israel and the United States think there’s a ways to go before we get to those," Hagel said. "I think Obama is handling this exactly the right way. I can understand differences between Obama and the Israeli prime minister, but we have differences with all our allies."

Hagel rejected the notion that Obama has put distance between the United States and Israel or mistreated Israel in any way.

"That’s complete nonsense. Anything who knows anything about this knows it’s nonsense," he said.

Hagel expressed frustration with the ideological bent in the Republican Party, especially its far-right factions, and said that the GOP of old had the right idea about how to handle national security. He is also still upset about the Republican handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"You’ve got a Republican Party that is having difficulty facing up to the fact that when you look at what happened the first eight years of the 21st century, that was under Republican direction. You had a conservative Republican president get us into two wars without paying for either of them," he said. "We financed the wars off budget. So the Republican Party is dealing with a schizophrenia that it was the Republican Party leadership that got us into this mess."

Hagel thinks foreign policy should be determined by the U.S. national interest.

"I don’t think you can lead by ideology. Ideology gets a nation into a lot of trouble… There’s a streak of intolerance in the Republican Party today, and that scares people. Intolerance is a very dangerous thing in a society because it always leads to a tragic ending," he said. "Now the Republican Party is in the hands of the extreme right, more than ever before."

America must do more to shape a "new world order" that account for the rise of new world powers by actively engaging in the reform and promotion of multilateral organizations and structures, he said.

"That doesn’t mean we acquiesce to anyone us or give up to anyone else, but we’ve got to adjust to the realities of these emerging power," he said. "We should be embracing this and actively leading the change because it’s in our interest, just like Truman and Eisenhower did. And we’re missing that part of it. We can’t do anything on our own."

American decline is not inevitable, but the power to ensure or prevent that decline is in Americans’ hands, according to Hagel: "This nutty talk about America being on the back side of history, that isn’t going to be because of China or Brazil or India. If that occurs, that’s because we let it happen. That’s on us."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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