The Cable

Hagel: I Met Hafez al-Assad Six Months After He Died

For Chuck Hagel, it was the meeting that wasn't. 

It was December 2000, and Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, was traveling the Mideast seeking the answer to a single question. Then-President Bill Clinton had brought Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to Camp David in July for intensive negotiations that brought the two sides tantalizingly close to a full peace treaty. Arafat would have received a sovereign state of Palestine with its capital in Jerusalem, just as he had demanded for decades.  Clinton and Barak both thought they had a deal, but Arafat backed away at the last moment. Why, Hagel wondered, wouldn't Arafat take yes for an answer?

"He had 95 percent of what he asked for and then turned it down," Hagel writes in his 2008 autobiography "America: Our Next Chapter." "How do you get what appears to be such a good deal and then walk away from it?" 

Fortunately, Hagel writes, he soon had the chance to ask one of the Mideast's canniest and most-experienced leaders that very question. Hagel, according to his memoir, traveled to Damascus for a meeting with Syrian strongman Hafez al-Assad, the father of the country's current dictator.  In his book, Hagel says that Assad told him that he was prepared to a sign a peace treaty with Israel provided the Jewish state agreed to give up both East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Then, Hagel writes, he asked Assad for his views on the Camp David talks.

"He does not have the sole authority to make a deal," Assad replied, according to the book. 

Hagel believed that Assad was trying to pass along an important lesson about the modern Mideast: the Israel-Palestine issue was so important to the region's other Arab leaders that Arafat couldn't sign a treaty without their approval.

There is just one problem with Hagel's account of the meeting: it never happened. Assad died in June, six months before purportedly sitting down with Hagel and one month before the Camp David talks had even begun. The book vividly recounts a conversation that couldn't have taken place. 

The defense secretary is currently dealing with a different Assad, at a very different time in U.S.-Syrian relations. Hagel met with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in 2002 to discuss regional security issues, including the stalled peace process.  Eleven years later, Hagel was a key player in the Obama administration's internal deliberations over whether to bomb Syria after the younger Assad used chemical weapons to kill hundreds of his own people. 

In his decades in public life, Hagel has earned a well-deserved reputation for candor and honesty. There is no reason to think that he intentionally fabricated the meeting with the elder Assad or tried to mislead his readers. All the same, the book - co-written with Peter Kaminsky - contains a significant error on the subject of Mideast peace, a topic that Hagel has worked on for years, first in the Senate, then at the Atlantic Council, and now at the Pentagon. The book came out in 2008, and has been reprinted as a paperback and e-book. The erroneous account has never been corrected.

Carl Woog, a Pentagon spokesman, said the mistake stemmed from a "simple editing error."

Hagel, Woog said, met with Assad in Damascus in August 1998 to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Syrian leader made his comment about Arafat lacking the authority to make a deal with Israel during that meeting. Hagel returned to Damascus in December 2000 and discussed the failed Camp David talks with senior Syrian government officials, including then-Syrian Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara. Woog said that Hagel's editors at his publisher, Ecco, a HarperCollins imprint, mistakenly combined the two trips into a single one.

"Secretary Hagel has asked the publisher to correct the error in this passage," Woog added.

A spokeswoman for HarperCollins said she was unaware of how the error crept into the book and couldn't confirm whether the publisher had received Hagel's request to fix that part of the memoir.

Alex Wong/Getty Image News

The Cable

Key Democrat Caves to White House on Iran Sanctions

A last-minute effort to introduce new Iran sanctions legislation before the Christmas recess collapsed on Thursday morning following intense pressure from the White House and State Department.

Ever since Iran and six world powers signed an interim agreement to restrain Tehran's nuclear program, the Obama administration has opposed any new sanctions legislation against the Islamic state, saying it would derail delicate nuclear talks in Geneva. In defiance of that position, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, huddled with House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) to craft a non-binding resolution that outlines the terms of a final nuclear deal with Iran and calls for additional sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

A congressional aide tells The Cable that Hoyer personally made edits to the resolution and all four lawmakers agreed on the final language as of Wednesday night. However, on Thursday morning, Hoyer backed off unexpectedly.

"Mr. Hoyer decided now was not the time to move forward with a resolution given implementation talks have not yet wrapped in Vienna," Hoyer spokeswoman Stephanie Young tells The Cable, referring to upcoming talks in Austria.

Cantor's office confirmed that the resolution would not be introduced before the Christmas recess. "The Leader is disappointed we could not move ahead with the resolution this week, but he will continue to work with Whip Hoyer, Chairman Royce and Congressman Engel to get the agreed on resolution to the floor as soon as possible," said Cantor spokesman Rory Cooper.

Given the White House's vociferous opposition to new sanctions legislation, some Democrats were taken aback by Hoyer's apparent willingness to defy the administration. "Members were surprised that Hoyer initially embraced a concept of working up a legislative product on Iran given the sensitivities at the White House," a Democratic congressional aide told The Cable.

A copy of the resolution, obtained by The Cable, calls on Iran to "suspend all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities" and allow for inspections of "all suspect sites, including military facilities, and full access to all Iranian personnel, scientists, and technicians associated with Iran's nuclear program." Those terms differ from the final deal the Obama administration is believed to be negotiating with Tehran, which would allow for some enrichment activities.

In hearing after hearing, Democrats and Republicans have expressed opposition to the administration's nuclear deal with Iran, saying the concessions Iran made on its nuclear program, such as giving inspectors access to its nuclear facilities, do not justify the easing of $7 billion worth of sanctions. The deal is also strenuously opposed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobbying firm.

On Thursday, Wendy Sherman, the State Department's chief negotiator on Iran, defended the interim deal before the Senate committee in charge of sanctions.

Sherman warned that passing new sanctions now would not only derail the agreement, but also threaten the current laws restricting Iran's trade and financial transactions. She said new sanctions would "alienate us from our allies, and risk unraveling the international cohesion that has proven so essential to ensuring sanctions have the intended effect," in the Senate Banking Committee hearing.

Committee Chairman Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) said he agreed with the Obama administration's view that more sanctions could cause current negotiations to collapse.

"We should not give Iran, the P5+1 countries or other nations a pretext to lay responsibility for their collapse on us," Johnson said.

Treasury sanctions chief David Cohen also testified that pressure on Iran would continue unabated. Before the hearing Thursday morning, Treasury announced it was adding several companies and individuals to its sanctions blacklist, including a Singaporean shipping company and a businessman in Ukraine who allegedly helped broker the sale of Iranian oil.

With the Cantor-Hoyer effort on ice, all eyes are on Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) who are trying to introduce new sanctions legislation in the Senate. Still, even that effort appears to be getting watered down, judging by Menendez's remarks at the Banking Committee hearing.

"I have been a proponent of pursuing additional sanctions prospectively ... but I'm beginning to think based upon on all of this that maybe what the Senate needs to do is to define the end game, or at least what it finds as acceptable as the final status," Menendez said. "Because I'm getting nervous about what I perceive will be acceptable to [the Obama administration] as a final status ... versus what the Congress might view as acceptable."

"Maybe defining that through a resolution may be a course of action that would affect the ultimate outcome, which is obviously the most important one," Menendez continued.

The comments suggest that it's unlikely that any new binding sanctions legislation will be passed in the Senate before the recess -- a point supported by Sen. Bob Corker, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I realize that we're sort of going through a rope-a-dope here in the Senate and that we're not actually going to do anything," he said during the banking hearing.

You can read the full resolution crafted by Cantor and Hoyer below: 

Iran Resolution

Getty Images