“No One Wins When The World Is Unstable”: Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel

The Honorable Chuck Hagel served as the 24th Secretary of Defense from February 2013 to February 2015. Previously, Secretary Hagel served in the Vietnam War and received two Purple Hearts for his service as an infantry leader. He was later elected to the Senate as a representative of Nebraska in 1996. Secretary Hagel first served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with then-Senator Obama and was later appointed as a co-chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board under President Obama. Secretary Hagel visited the University of Chicago for an event sponsored by the Chicago Project on Terrorism (CPOST) to speak with students on “America’s Security Architecture.” Before the event, Secretary Hagel sat down with The Gate’s Liz Stark to discuss the Obama administration’s strategy in the Middle East, the ability to combat cyber warfare, and the implications of a gridlocked government on national security.

The Gate: During the 2008 presidential election cycle, there were reports circulating that then-Senator Barack Obama was considering you as a potential running mate. Five years later, President Obama appointed you as his Secretary of Defense. How has your relationship with the president changed over the years?

Secretary Chuck Hagel: When Obama first got to the Senate, he and I developed a real friendship. He came on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which I had been on since 1996. I liked him, and we had a good personal relationship and friendship because we served on the same committee. Then in 2008, he asked Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) and I to go with him on the Middle East tour, so we were together during that time. So I have always had a good relationship with him. I like him very much, and I respect him very much. Then, when he became president, he asked me and former Senator David Boren (D-OK), who is now the president of the University of Oklahoma, to co-chair his President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. I did that for four years before I became Secretary of Defense.

Gate: Recently, you have voiced some criticisms of the Obama administration for its strategy in dealing with ISIS and the conflict in Syria. What are some of your concerns, and how could things have been handled differently?

Hagel: First of all, you have recognized that this is a difficult time for government. There are more big issues and complicated issues that face the president of the United States today than I think any time since World War II. So I think that’s where you have to start. I don’t think the White House ever developed a real, overall strategy—not just with Syria, because Syria is just a piece of the problem. And ISIS is a manifestation of that problem. So you can’t just take ISIS or Syria and tactically deal with them. You have to deal with them; that’s a reality. But there has to be some real political strategy and framework. Where are we going with this? What is the point of this?

I think also you always have to be careful of what you say. Presidents have to be very careful. When you say President Bashar al-Assad must go, that puts the United States in a position where we can’t get out of that hole. We can’t get the right people around the table to start sorting out the issue enough to bring some stability. Nothing will get done until there is some stability—suffering, bloodshed, proxy wars, more killings, and more devastation is all that’s going to happen here. That will just devastate the entire Middle East. You have half of the Middle Eastern countries that don’t have any functioning governments. So you need a political framework as to how do you strategically and politically stop this. Then start working through this with the people of the Middle East—because they have to solve the bigger issues in the Middle East how they want to solve it. Syria is just part of that. Obviously terrorism is also a threat, but you have to deal with that separately. I didn’t ever think there was a real political strategy to deal with it at all. The point about saying, “Assad must go,” is that half the people who need to be at the table won’t come to the table because they say, “Well, that’s a non-starter.” There will be no peace in the Middle East without Russia or Iran—you might not like them, but that’s a fact of life. The other half say, “Well, Assad has to go or else I won’t talk to you,” because that is the U.S. position because the president of the United States said it. If you say that you have a red line, then you better be prepared to back it up. Because when you don’t, as what has happened, you lose credibility, confidence, and trust not only from your allies—which we have in the Middle East—but your adversaries watch that too. Nobody then will believe you on what you say. So you have to be careful on this, while also recognizing that there are a lot of nuances and a lot of problems. Something that the United States is not very good at dealing with is uncontrollables. There are so many parts to this problem in the Middle East that we can’t control and never will be able to control. Let’s not kid ourselves that the military is going to fix that because it has to get fixed there and get played out. We can help facilitate and broker and try to build these platforms to back stability, but we need a political strategy that everything fits into for this to work.

Gate: In that case, what would it take to bring people to the table in order to create stability in the Middle East?

Hagel: Well, Secretary of State John Kerry has been working very hard at this and working with the Russians. You have to start with the Russians and the Iranians. You have to keep at it. There are so many different interests here. There is no magic to this—it’s a very difficult problem. I think there is the possibility [for stability] with a new president because new presidents have opportunities that old presidents don’t have. We are going to have a new president, whoever that new president may be. I have said publicly again this week, my advice to the next president is very quickly to sit down with President Vladimir Putin, and start talking about how we are going to build stability. Find the common interests that Iran has, the U.S. has, the Europeans have, the Turks have, the Russians have, in the Middle East.

Right now, one of the common interests is terrorism. We are all against it. Terrorism attacks everybody: Russia’s whole southern flank, the western part of China, Europe, the United States. Let’s start to build a coalition around that common interest. Plus economic development. No one wins when the world is unstable, except the non-state actors and the people who don’t share our common interests. Russia has a lot of trouble economically. China and Europe do too. Build around those common denominators to go forward. A new president is a new beginning. Whether that new president is Clinton or Trump, the new president has a clean record. Yes, Clinton has been around and people know that, but she has never been president. She was Secretary of State. She was a facilitator of what President Obama wanted. That is what a Secretary of Defense or any cabinet member does—we are just agents. We don’t make policy. We carry out the White House’s policy.

Gate: Between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, who do you think is most capable of facing these new challenges?

Hagel: Well, I want to listen to both of them over the next six months. Hopefully, we are through the nonsense part of this election year. Unless something very dramatic happens, Clinton will be the Democratic nominee and Trump will be the Republican nominee. The media has a big responsibility here. Let’s stop all the entertainment and the Kardashian-type shows, and let’s get to the big issues. Let’s let the American people have a role in this, and through the media, ask Trump and Clinton to explain to us how they would handle these issues. We have a lot of time to do this—six months is a long time to go. I want to listen to what both of them have to say. Certainly, Clinton has had some big and responsible government jobs before. Trump never has. But that doesn’t mean he is disqualified. Sometimes it takes someone from the outside. But, let’s see what Mr. Trump has to say about that. And what Secretary Clinton has to say because now she would be the president—not an agent of the president, but the president herself.

Gate: In terms of facing rising challenges, another new frontier for terrorism is the use of cyber warfare. To what extent do you think that the U.S. government is ready to protect our nation’s cybersecurity?

Hagel: Cyber warfare is as big a threat to this country as any one threat. And there are a lot of threats out there. And they are all real and we have to pay attention to every one of them. But cyber is this insidious, silent, deadly weapon that can cause disaster to a country and to its economy, power grids, and every facet of society. It can knock out satellites. You are never quite sure of, initially, where the attack is coming from. That inhibits your retaliation, to some extent, until you are sure of your attacker—because who are you going to retaliate against? Non-state actors especially have great capacity to make it appear, in many cases, that the attacks came from China or North Korea or Iran or Russia, for example. So if you are going to retaliate against a non-state actor, what are you going to do? Destroy their capital? Well, where is their capital? Cyber warfare crosses all boundaries, and it’s an international scourge that affects every segment of our society and who we are.

So are we prepared? The United States is far better prepared than any other country on Earth. Our capacity and capabilities to deal with these things are not perfect—we should do more and are doing more— we need to be more agile, especially within our institutions where the power is. The biggest challenge we have in using all this is making sure it gets to the right agencies. Right now, the Department of Defense, NSA, and Cyber Command have the tools and all the capacity, but the authority is in the Department of Homeland Security. They don’t have what DoD has, so we have to make sure the resources required for Homeland Security to protect the homeland gets over there. But we are moving in those directions. Second to this is the idea of private sector versus public sector. The private sector is very vulnerable. Because of our laws of privacy, for example, our public sector and government are very limited in how far they can go to warn the private sector, to get involved in the private sector’s business, how much the private sector can ask the public sector to defend it, to retaliate, to be part of it. We don’t have a good enough codification of our laws to do this. Congress has been working on this for years, but we are way behind. It is a terrible irresponsibility of Congress not to have been able to come up with something about cybersecurity. When I was in the Senate, we were working on this, but it has gotten far worse and far dangerous. We still don’t have a clear set of laws and agenda and boundaries for where we can bring the private and public sectors into more alignment and protect the interests of this country.

Gate: This brings up the case of the FBI hacking into the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone to retrieve information about the terrorist attacks last year. The San Bernardino case has reignited the debate over an individual’s right to personal privacy versus the government’s need to address threats to our national security. How do you reconcile these two conflicting perspectives?

Hagel: I have always believed that you don’t have to give up one to get the other. This country is big enough, smart enough, free enough, rich enough, capable enough to balance those issues. By the way, throughout history, this question has plagued every government: giving up freedoms and rights in order to ensure security. When it tips too far to security, the government becomes a police state. You lose your rights. And there is always the excuse, “Well, those rights will come back,” or “There is a danger now that we have to deal with.” But these rights don’t come back. History has been very clear on that. When you give up your rights, they don’t come back. They just don’t. But we can do both [personal privacy and national security] and we are doing both and we have been able to do both. Now there are episodes in our history where we have not done this—such as Japanese concentration camps during World War II, for example. But we are smart enough to do this and we have to focus on it. But we just aren’t, because our Congress is paralyzed with so much political nonsense. The White House doesn’t get along with the Congress and Congress doesn’t speak to the White House, so we have a government that is just, in many ways, broken. It is complete chaos and paralysis, and can’t even pass a budget. It can’t pass basic pieces of legislation. When I was in the Senate, we would always pass budgets and appropriations bills. Now we can’t even do that!

Gate: What do you think caused this stagnation in our government?

Hagel: Well, I think it’s because of politics. The political system has been allowed to grind down and not work because of the absolutism of politics today. Politics has essentially become the same as a religion, in which there is the absolutism of a religion—“My God is the true God and yours is a fabrication”—and the other side believes that too. In politics, it’s the same: “I’m absolutely right all the time, and you’re absolutely wrong all the time. So I will do everything I can to stop you. I certainly won’t listen to you. I certainly won’t compromise with you.” Well, the definition of democracy tells you that the only way democracy works is through compromise. There is no other way to do it. Because if you don’t have compromise, you have a dictatorship or a monarchy. So, what has happened is that now we have allowed the absolutism of politics to control the mechanisms and levers of our political process, and it has stopped everything. I think this administration has to take some responsibility for that, as does the Republican Congress too. Two years ago, when the Republicans took over Congress and the new leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, whom I know well and have worked with, was asked by the media, “So Mr. Leader, as the leader of the United States Senate, what is the Republican agenda for the next two years now that you control the Senate?” And if you recall, his answer was to stop everything that President Obama sends over. That was astounding. I have never heard or read ever, in the history of this republic, a leader of the Senate, regardless of party, ever say that. That that was going to be the objective of the party for the country. So when you have a leader like that—and he wouldn’t have said that unless he had the forces in his party to back him up—then I think the White House has failed because they have not reached out and tried, at least from what I saw, to build relationships with some of the Republicans. And there are some Republicans who you can do that and build relationships with—I was one of them when I was in the Senate. I had my own philosophy about things, but I listened and co-sponsored things with Democrats. I worked with the Clinton administration and the Bush administration. But I always thought that was the responsibility of all of us, to make government work and to move the country ahead. But when you paralyze government, it makes things more dangerous.

Gate: How can we get our government back on track?

Hagel: It will have to take a realization from our political leaders that this paralysis has put America in a very dangerous position. If nothing else, you can always count on one thing in politics: self-preservation. Politicians always care about their own self-preservation. What does self-preservation have to do with your question? It has everything to do with your question. What you see going on in American politics today is not normal. We have never seen anything like this. Never has there been a time when we’ve seen anything like what’s going on in America today. When you add up Bernie Sanders’s votes and Donald Trump’s votes together, which are the overwhelming majority (not plurality) of all the votes cast so far in all the primaries and caucuses, these are straight protest votes about our country. Our system is not working, and the people of America are angry. They think their government has let them down. They think Washington is the Sodom of Sodom and Gomorrah. Politics is bad. It’s all about self-preservation for the politician and the party. Wall Street is just as bad. Bankers are bad. Institutions are bad. Boy, that’s dangerous! Politicians are watching this happen. And when a guy by the name of Donald Trump, who no one believed would become the nominee of the Republican party, or let alone would have the possibility of being president, he rises to the top over sixteen other candidates, including governors and senators and other accomplished people. America just walked away from all of them. They said, “I don’t want the governor of Ohio or New Jersey, I don’t want Jeb Bush or Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio or any of them.” So they overwhelmingly voted for a guy like Donald Trump—whether you like him or not is irrelevant. But that tells America something about what’s going on in politics, which is a reflection of your question about how do we change government. Oh, it will get changed.

The president of the United States sets the political tone of America. It has always been that way and will always be that way. The president is this larger-than-life figure. Congressmen and senators and the speaker are important, but so few people know who the speaker of the House is, even though he is number two in line of succession. The senate majority leader is number three. Most people have no idea who they are. Everybody knows who the president is. The president represents the government and the country. So I think regardless of who wins, you will see some changes in government because it will force, whether it is Clinton or Trump or the Congress, a new beginning. America will keep changing out their leaders. That’s the great safety valve of democracies—the vote. And it sure is powerful.

Gate: Finally, you are here at the University of Chicago to speak with students about foreign policy. What is the most important message you want students to take away from your speech?

Hagel: Well first, I want to listen to them. That is as important to me as anything, to get a sense of what’s on their minds and what they think. I stay in touch with young people, as I’m associated with Georgetown University and the University of Nebraska, to talk with students to really get their thinking. Second, to really give the students an opportunity to ask me questions about what I saw and what I think. I have been involved in politics for most of my life, but I have done other things in business and the army. Let them take this wherever they want. What I will probably start with in my comments is an overview of the world and our defense architecture. I think it’s important that we go back through history, especially for young people, to get an understanding of how we got to this point. The system that was built right after World War II is a pretty good system, and it has worked pretty well for most people and most countries. It’s not perfect, we’ve made a lot of mistakes. But I don’t think we want to discount what has been right and what has worked. We will have to adjust and adapt to new threats and new challenges, but we can do that. We can self-correct. But I don’t think you want to entirely dismantle the architecture that was put in place after World War II because it was based on alliances.

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