The Cable

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 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."

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The Cable

Top administration officials brief Congress secretly on Benghazi

The House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees may or may not hear from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in open session Dec. 20 on Benghazi, but yesterday they heard from six other top U.S. officials in secret and behind closed doors.

Senators who attended the briefing include Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), presumptive ranking Republican Bob Corker (R-TN), among others. The senators were shown a video of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, according to a spokesperson for Kerry. That video had been shown to other committees previously. The meeting was classified at the Top Secret level.

The officials at the briefing were Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, Director of the National Counterterrorism Center Matthew Olsen, Maj. Gen. Darryl Roberson, vice director for operations on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict Gary Reid, and Jenny Ley, deputy assistant director at the FBI.

The hearing came on the same day that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice took herself out of the running to replace Clinton, while sticking to her guns on her Sept. 16 statements on the Benghazi attack, in which she referred to intelligence community talking points that said the attack was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islam video, based on the available information at the time.

"When discussing Benghazi, I relied on fully cleared, unclassified points provided by the intelligence community, which encapsulated their best current assessment. These unclassified points were consistent with the classified assessments I received as a senior policymaker," Rice wrote in Friday's Washington Post. "It would have been irresponsible for me to substitute any personal judgment for our government's and wrong to reveal classified material. I made clear in each interview that the information I was providing was preliminary and that ongoing investigations would give us definitive answers."

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who would like to join the SRFC next year, said through a spokesman Thursday that his concerns about the Benghazi attack remain despite Rice's withdrawal.

"Senator McCain thanks Ambassador Rice for her service to the country and wishes her well. He will continue to seek all the facts about what happened before, during and after the attack on our consulate in Benghazi that killed four brave Americans," McCain spokesman Brian Rogers said.

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) issued similar statements.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) issued a statement Thursday criticizing McCain, Graham, and Ayotte for their campaign to scuttle the Rice nomination.

"The politically-motivated attacks on her character from some of my Republican colleagues were shameful," Reid said. "Their behavior was a disgrace to the Senate's tradition of bipartisan cooperation on national security issues, and beneath the stature of senators with otherwise distinguished records on national security. I hope that moving forward, senators will act based on fact-finding and serving the public interest, not advancing partisan political agendas or settling old scores."