Sergeant Hagel Still: Talking with the Secretary of Defense


Chuck Hagel and Steve Clemons

Recently, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sent a 904-page book to Egyptian Army Commander-in-Chief Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, with whom he has had over twenty conversations since assuming his Pentagon role.  The book, Washington: A Life, won for its author Ron Chernow the Pulitzer Prize.  Rather than suggesting he read it all, Hagel emphasized to General Al-Sisi the chapter on Washington giving up his power at the end of his presidential term thus securing for the young nation one of the key pillars of leadership transition in a democracy run by civilian authority. (photo: Steve Clemons interviews Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon. photo credit: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/DoD)

Hagel connected with the Egyptian General, who would later lead the anti-Morsi coup, when he toured the Gulf region bolting down a major US arms sale in April of this year.  Hagel and his Pentagon team had succeeded in tying together Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel in a major $10 billion arms deal bolstering these nations defenses against potential Iranian aggression.  Though each of the deals were individual to the specific countries, they knew that the collective impact would telegraph a signal of resolve to Iran’s Supreme Leader. Given that the powerful lobby, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, was formed in part as a response to American’s 1981 effort to sell AWACs military aircraft to Saudi Arabia, the implicit cooperation between the Israelis and Saudis on the Hagel deal was historic and remarkable.

After seven months on the job, Hagel has generally kept his head down.  He hasn’t engaged in flamboyant media grabs and rarely rushes to speak on behalf of the administration he serves.  One of the few exceptions was when Hagel announced from the beaches of UAE American findings that Syria had used chemical weapons in a dozen or so cases killing then around 150 people.

Like the Sergeant he was in the Vietnam War, Hagel has in his current assignment demonstrated a dogged determination to get things done without distractions of the limelight.  But like a soldier carrying a 70-pound pack for miles, Hagel has been enduring, cutting through the muck, protecting the interests of his soldiers, and giving President Obama his candid counsel on budgets and war.

In the one-on-one interview below, done on the 27th of September, the actually date of Hagel’s seven month anniversary as Secretary, I spoke to him about his ongoing challenges about sexual violence in the military.  We talked about the sequester kicking in on his third day and how he is managing thus far not to go to war against his own commanders over budget slashing decisions that are cutting increasingly deep.

I asked Hagel where he was on the issue of attacking Syria and how he felt about the diplomatic sizzle at the moment – not just with Assad over chemical weapons, but with Russia, and somewhat remarkably, Iran.  We spoke about his three trips to Asia, from whence he just returned  — as well as what breakfast was like with the Defense Ministers (and some Deputy Defense Ministers) of Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and others at the ASEAN plus 8 Defense meeting after the 21 August chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime against its own citizens.  They all were keenly focused on what Obama would do.

Counting both uniformed men and women as well as civilian employees, about one in a hundred Americans works for Chuck Hagel.  During his short tenure there, he commissioned a Strategic Choices and Management Review in order to come to terms himself with the sprawl that is the Pentagon, its myriad of programs and its long term entitlement commitments to veterans as well as major weapons systems.

Donald Rumsfeld had a tough time with his generals, until 9/11 turned an era of austerity and hard choice budget-cutting into one of abundance for the Pentagon.  But Hagel, at least thus far, has presided over a time of very little public squabbling between services.  Leaks out of his shop have been few.  He told me that focusing on the needs and options for victims of violence in the military remains one of his personal top priorities.  He lunches once a month with enlisted men and women – meeting them and engaging in candid conversation outside of “the building.”

He made a point that while many are not paying much attention, America is still at war in Afghanistan – and how we proceed is consequential to US, Afghan, Pakistani, and broader regional interests.

I asked Hagel if ‘he’ was the Asia pivot – and he demurred saying that he was doing what he could to be helpful in emphasizing America’s commitments there – but that Vice President Joe Biden was the lead on Asia.  He credited John Kerry with being the exact right person at exactly this time as Secretary of State.  He emphasized that the Pentagon carries out policies and does not make them – that the military is the President’s tool.

But behind his modesty, Hagel’s discussion of Russia, China, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Asia broadly, Iran betrays a sophisticated strategic mind comfortable both executing the President’s orders to fire Tomahawk missiles against Assad if things came to that, or providing military muscle to support diplomacy coupled with strategic restraint.

Sergeant Hagel, who later became a successful businessman, then President of the troops-supporting USO, then a notable US Senator from Nebraska, said that there would be no ‘era of Hagel’ at the Pentagon, that he didn’t see his job as one of making sure he had a vanity imprint there.  He saw his job as making the military work better and the nation safer.

During the interview, he displayed both humor and steely resolve when discussing tensions inside his building as well as beyond America’s shores with potential adversaries.

During the tough nomination fight Obama’s White House had to wage to secure Chuck Hagel’s confirmation, a top GOP adviser to presidential candidate Mitt Romney wrote to me:

Hagel loves to be the skunk at the garden party – I think he is an American hero who has served admirably – but he loves to be the different one.  The GOP guy that pisses on the GOP, the one senator who doesn’t just go along.  I think Obama may have a maverick on his hands.

While Hagel clearly has his views of the world informed in part by a lifetime as a card-carrying Republican, Hagel has shown himself to be the ‘quiet do-er’, just getting things done, moving the nation’s security forward, improving the culture and operation at the Pentagon, and supporting the President with counsel as he decides what to do, and then executing those decisions.

Given the dysfunction and paralysis that has become the norm today in Washington, the tendency to be all talk and no hat, Hagel’s effectiveness in managing challenge after challenge ranging from budget hits to battles over chain of command decisions in Pentagon sexual assault cases to how America best positions itself with Syria, Egypt, and elsewhere, his “I’m not all that important but we have a big job to do” demeanor has proved to show that he is a maverick after all.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel

September 27, 2013

Interview by Steve Clemons, editor-at-large, The Atlantic

      Q:  Today marks your seventh month on the job.  Congratulations.




Q: I thought it would be useful to speak with you today about what Chuck Hagel has meant for American strategy, for the Pentagon, for your employees.  Since you have been sworn in, you have had to deal with so many issues, from sequestration hitting your third day, North Korea’s antics, Egypt and so on.

I scan the readouts that your team sends out on your discussions with foreign defense chiefs, particularly Egypt’s General al-Sisi, which I know you’re continuing to do.  So there are many things you have had to contend with since becoming Secretary.

And I guess I’d like to know how you’re getting on running a place where one in 100 Americans work for you. How are you getting beyond the stage now where you’re fundamentally reacting to this slew of challenges hitting you and beginning to establish a strategy about how the Hagel imprint is going to affect strategy in this building.


SEC. HAGEL:  First, I recognize that the role of the Secretary of Defense is very clear and it is to focus on the security of this country.  And within that role, there are many facets that the Secretary is accountable for, starting with the fact that our Defense Department is an instrument of foreign policy.  It doesn’t lead foreign policy.

As Secretary, you work for the president.  You are accountable to the president.  You manage.   You lead.  You respond.  And then you get beyond that where, for example, I’m meeting with the president of Uganda this morning.  I meet with presidents, foreign ministers.  Yesterday in New York, with John Kerry, we met with all the GCC foreign ministers.

So, the scope of the responsibilities of the Secretary of Defense are pretty broad.  And within that, you are also dealing with the realities of budget issues, sequestration, and what you have to manage through.  So, I’ve never seen my job or the time I’ll spend here as defining a Hagel era.

I’ve never seen it that way, because I think this is a job and a responsibility that encapsulates all of the different dimensions of the people here — the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the chairman, the secretaries, the sergeants, every person who has a role in making our defense and our security the best in the world.  It’s going to continue after I’m gone, was here before I was here.

So I don’t see it as a Hagel imprint.  The way I do see my role is what can I do to improve our security?  What can I do to improve this institution while I’m here?  How can I enhance it by my leadership and by my presence?  And then the rest of it takes care of itself.

Q: I read the other night the readout of you calling the commanders of the ships stationed off the coast of Syria and telling them that this was going to be a longer haul, and appreciating their service during a tense time.  I thought it was an extremely personal, human readout connecting with the commanders and their crew.  Tell me about how Chuck Hagel is connecting with the people who are actually serving and how you are remaining connected to them.

Are you doing a lot more of these kinds of calls?

SEC. HAGEL:  I’m doing that all the time.  I mean, I don’t know how much you know about some of the things I do around here on that point, but the first month I was here, Steve, I said I wanted to hold a monthly luncheon with the lower enlisted.  I do that every month.  I’ve done it for every month I’ve been here.

The senior enlisted people in each service — they pick one individual each month.  I don’t want them here in the building.  I want them to come outside — from outside the building.  I want them to be lower enlisted, E-5 and below, all different backgrounds.

We sit at that table right there, no one else in the room, for an hour.  Have lunch.  Have a little fun.  And they ask me questions.  I ask them questions.  But I start every luncheon with “tell me a little bit about yourself.”  Now, I read their bios, but it doesn’t tell the full picture if I read just what’s in their bio.  “Why did you join the service?”  “Are you going to stay in the service?”  “What do you think is right?”

You know, personal things.  And you — you really stay connected, not just that one way, but every way.  When I go out, for example, when I try to get out as much as I can to see our troops.  I’ll be in Korea and Japan next week, as you probably know.  I’ll meet with our troops there.


Q:  Third trip to Asia, right?


SEC. HAGEL:  Third trip to Asia.  Aside from all the other things I’ve got to be doing and should do and will do, I meet with our troops, spend time with them.  And many times, for example, one of the, I think, most memorable examples of what I’m about to say is when I was at Camp LeJeune recently with the Marines.  And asked to see women Marines alone for an hour, a little more than an hour; all different ranks; officers, enlisted.  There were 13 of them.

Went around the room — sexual assault.  It was an amazing —


Q:  Were they candid?


SEC. HAGEL:  Tremendous.  Tremendous.  We had — we had lesbian officers who were able now to get married.  I mean, just — just an incredible variety of people, of personalities, of people dedicated.  Their core focus was this country.  They love this country.  They want to enhance this country.  They want to help this country with all the problems that some of them had been having to deal with over the years.

And they’re amazingly honest.  And I do so many of these kinds of encounters.  I call the officers on the ships, spend time with our people out there and in this building.  Do one-on-ones.  Because that is — it’s just who I am, for one thing.  But it’s one way for me to also stay connected to what — what the core responsibility of this job is, because it’s people.

Institutions never change anything.  They — they’re structures.  They represent different opportunities to change things.  But it is — it is people who change things.  They make decisions, people make decisions.  And so you’ve got to stay connected to your people.  And your people have to now that.  They have to know they have a Secretary of Defense that they can rely on, that cares about them personally, about their families, about their futures.

And yes, we’ll all make decisions based on what we think is the right — right interest of our country.


Q:  Well, the sexual violence issue is something you had to deal with early on.  There was enormous press coverage.  Is — is that largely in a static state now?  Or are you — you know, when I watched the stand-off between the commanders and Kirsten Gillibrand and some of the others, I noted that you kept your powder dry.


SEC. HAGEL:  Well, it’s not status quo at all.  I just met for an hour, by the way, in that room over there this morning with the Secretary of Defense’s Women’s Advisory Board.  Very, very impressive group of people.  Interestingly, there’s one man on it.  But these are former three-stars in all different varieties, backgrounds, races, everything.

And this — this board was — was empaneled in 1951.  And it’s gone through ups and downs in how the secretaries have used it.  But I have put a premium on that advisory board.  I just spent — most of that hour was about sexual assault.  You probably know, I’ve put out more than 16 new directives on representation for the first time for victims.  And am now moving other initiatives supporting victims and working to change the culture here that has been a problem.

I — several months ago, I sent a letter up to Congress asking for Congress to look at amending the Uniform Code of Military Justice and some of the accountability structures.  No, I’m very active on this.  It is the one issue that I hold a meeting on once a week, one hour, sexual assault.

The vice chiefs, the chiefs, the legal people, all the sexual assault prevention leaders, we go around the room and I get a report.  And I say, “What are we doing?  How come we’re not there yet?  Are we on time?”  I want them to tell me what’s going on at the Naval Academy and those kind of things.  “What’s happening here?”

It’s the one issue I’m on consistently, and I’ve been doing this for months, that I’ve taken personal control of.  So, — (inaudible) — give you all kinds of things, but no, this is not anything status quo.  This is something I work a great deal on — talk to members of Congress.  I’ve talked to all of the senators, the women senators, the House women members; Levin, Inhofe.  I talk to all of them.  Our guys here talk to all of them.

I’ve instructed all our people to be involved, be connected, be honest, be direct.  When you say “keep your powder dry,” what I’ve said — here’s what I’ve tried to do on that.  I took the position, and still have it, that we want to listen to everybody.  We’re open to everybody.  We’ve got a broken system.  We can fix it.  We will fix it.  We are fixing it.

But it isn’t going to get fixed with one law.  It’s not going to get fixed in six months or a year.  This is societal.  It’s cultural.  There are a whole bunch of things here.  But we’ll fix it.

But I told the President one of the first times we talked about this, this — this problem will get fixed in this institution.  We need help.  Absolutely, we need — we need some changes in the law.  Absolutely.  But you can’t take it away or out of the institution because this is all about accountability.  And everyone in this institution is accountable in some way.  There are chains of command accountability.

That chain of command has failed over the years, obviously, for a lot of reasons.  But if it’s going to get fixed, it has to get fixed here in this culture, in this institution, in each service.  And that’s what we’re focusing on.  So, no, I’m as connected in this thing today as I was six months ago.


Q:  Let’s discuss the strategic picture for a minute.  When you take a step back, it’s somewhat breathtaking that at simultaneous moments there is a new perk-up in Middle East peace talks.  You have President Rouhani of Iran giving an extraordinary sets of speeches and talks at the UN General Assembly and the Council on Foreign Relations that I’ve ever heard from an Iranian leader.  I listened to the Council on Foreign Relations program yesterday and both Jarvad Zarif and Rouhani were united in presenting a completely different posture towards the US.

You now have Russia and the United States back collaborating somewhat on a deal that could end up with Syria giving up its chemical weapons.  And while one doesn’t want to get lost in fantasy and hope, fundamentally all this raises the question of whether the Obama administration got really, really lucky, or whether this a function of design and smart strategy.

Q:  And I’d like to get your thoughts on the role you have seen the Pentagon play in helping to shape the environment that might have made this new developments possible, if it’s not just luck.


SEC. HAGEL:  Well, here’s the way I would respond.  Let’s start with my role and the Pentagon’s role in this process.  As you know, I am a member of the National Security Council as well as the chairman, General Dempsey.  We participate in every meeting.  We have a voice.  The president is very receptive.  We’re at the table, just a very few of us.  And that’s, I believe, as it should be.  This president uses his National Security Council and he listens carefully.  He probes.  He pushes.  He wants to know.

So we are very active in that.  But as I said earlier, our role is not — is not to lead foreign policy.  Our role is — is an instrument of foreign policy.  Our role is input in the National Security Council.  And we give the president our best advice on military affairs and so on.  But at the end of the day, whatever foreign policy the president decides on, then our responsibility is to review if it includes any kind of military option.  And then we will carry that out.  And he has confidence, the country has to have confidence, that we will employ whatever option the president decides.

Now, that said, more to your question — luck, so on and so on.  I don’t think it’s that simple.  People who try to put these things in categories — was this strategic brilliance?  Was this stumbling?  Was this bumbling?  Was this luck?  Oh, I think it’s all part of it.  Because first of all, you start with very imperfect situations.  I don’t think we’ve ever seen the world as complicated, as interconnected, as it is today.

The Middle East is, of course, a key laboratory for that.  And Syria and its chemical weapons, for example, are not just about Syria and not just about chemical weapons.  Look at the composition of the opposition in there — Al Qaida, Al Nusra, Hezbollah.  And the right kind of people, the moderates who want to do something that’s inclusive for Syria.

Israel is right next door.  What’s going on in Egypt?  Iran?  The refugee problem — 2, 3 million refugees spilling into Jordan, putting huge pressure on Jordan.  Turkey’s involved in this.  Problems in Iraq, the religious, historical differences that are really now starting to play out in the Middle East.  Chemical weapons are another dimension of that.  Russia, our relationship with Russia.  Their piece.  What’s their interest?  What are our Western allies’ interests?

So you have to frame all that up because you can’t disconnect any of those pieces.  So what you try to do is you try to find common interests that make sense, where you can get Russia on board as one example with the Syria situation.  The president is right.  A political resolution in Syria has to be our goal — and essentially the Middle East, what’s going on there, all these combined efforts — the renewed efforts that we’re making regarding the Israelis and the Palestinians, these have to all be resolved through smart diplomacy, smart strategy, and political settlement.

That’s the only way that we’re going to be able to move forward.  It’s complicated.  It’s difficult.  You stumble.  It’s imperfect.  But you’ve got to keep your eye on the larger strategic interest as to what is the end-game.

Then you add something like chemical weapons to the mix.  Now, that’s the presentation of another complicating component of a nearly 100-year agreement by most civilized nations of the world.  Governments are not going to allow this agreement to be undermined.

And so, if there’s no international response to the use of these chemical weapons, then — then what effect or consequence could that have on North Korea, because they have a large chemical weapons stockpile also; or — where Iran may be going and may be wanting to go, we’ll see, on development of nuclear weapons capability.

So, that’s another component of this.  So, how do you resolve the issue?  Well, yes, — there are a lot of bends in the road.  There are a lot of twists and turns.  But on this particular issue, where we are today on Syria, probably not Iran as much, but certainly Syria, with the Russians, with the OPCW in The Hague and the United Nations, I don’t believe, and the president has said this, and I think he’s absolutely right, that without the very credible threat of force, I don’t think we’d be in the place we are today.

So, there is a component of power, of your military, that you have to employ wisely, judiciously, carefully.  But it all does fit.  So, I don’t think there’s a simple answer to was it luck, was it just the way it was.  On the other hand, I think – actually I know – there was a lot of strategic thinking in this.  But you have to remember that strategies never work out exactly the way you lay it out.  There’s no blueprint.  There’s no road map.  There’s no cook book.

You manage.  You deal with the situation every 24 hours, but you’ve got to keep your eye on the larger strategic intest at the end.  And then you have to constantly consider how try to manage all of the moving pieces.  And in this, you’ve got to have a role for Russia somewhere.


Q:  Of course, in round one, you were the official to announce the administration’s findings on chemical weapons use, the smaller-scale, 12 or so incidents that happened.  In round two, with the horrible revelations on August 21st, you were in Asia.  I think you were in the Philippines.  You were talking to world leaders in the Asia-Pacific region.

What were you hearing from them about what they hoped to see from the United States?  And how do you think they would have reacted had the United States at the time not acted?


SEC. HAGEL:  Well, that was a very interesting time, because I was with the ASEAN-plus group — we’re 10 nations in ASEAN, and then eight other plus nations, which I was in along with the Russian deputy defense minister.  I was with the Chinese defense minister as well.  And the Japanese defense minister.


Q:  Breakfast must have been interesting.


SEC. HAGEL:  It was.  The South Korean defense minister was there too, in addition to all the ASEAN countries.  So, all these components, all these key defense officials there at this time was particularly interesting.  What I was doing — I was doing Asian business during the day and doing the Syrian-Middle East business at night.


Q:  And we noticed the bags under your eyes were getting bigger.  (Laughter.)


SEC. HAGEL:  Getting up at 2 o’clock in the morning, 3 o’clock in the morning, and, you know, doing the secure SVTS with the National Security Council.

And so, in answer to your question about what the defense ministers and others were saying that I was with — yes, they were first of all looking to the United States for some leadership response, some reaction.  The were asking me “What do you think? What are you going to do?” I’ve said publicly that in conversations with the South Korean defense minister, one of the points that he made to me right up front was, “We are very concerned about North Korea’s capacity, capability of delivering chemical weapons, because they have large stockpiles and they’re right there — that close.”

So that’s a snapshot from the Asian perspective, at least the South Korean view.  The Japanese, by the way, have the same concerns about what the absence of an American response on Syria would signal to the North Koreans; how would the North Koreans interpret this if there’s no international response.

I was on the phone with my European colleagues on this, too — the French and the British in particular, and the Germans, their interest and their response.  And I think you know where the French have been and then what happened regarding Cameron in the Parliament and so on.

So, yes, there — there was absolute intense focus when I was there in Asia with all those Asian country defense ministers on what we were going to do.


Q:  Would you characterize your position as having been supportive of, then, the notion of an early strike?  And how did you feel about the President’s decision sort of midway to jump a different course and ask for congressional authorization?


SEC. HAGEL:  Well, let me take that last piece separately, because there’s been a lot of misunderstanding, I think, and misrepresentation on that.  But back to your first point, take one of the countries — Indonesia, largest Muslim country in the world, as you know; the Philippines, large Muslim population; Malaysia, large Muslim population.  They were not enthusiastic about us taking a military option or striking militarily, for their own individual reasons.

And it wasn’t that they would be opposed to it per se, but they had to be careful for their own political reasons.  And this gets back to my point earlier about complications.  Every country has different political dynamics.  We do.  We saw that in the vote in Parliament, in London.  Each one of those leaders has to comply with the realities and boundaries that they have within their own borders — their own political world, on how far they can go on anything.  And what they can say and what we all can say privately is a little different, obviously, than what’s projected on the outside.

And by the way, that’s not anything duplicitous.  That’s just a matter of reality.  So, the reason I say that, Steve, is because there were no absolutes here — I didn’t pick up any absolutes by any of those countries that you should strike or shouldn’t strike or not use our military forces.  But where they all wanted to go, all of them, was, “Can you find — can we find some way to resolve this?”  And these messages came back, the Russians have to be part of it.  And I’ve always thought, too, that Iran is always a factor in these Middle East and South Asia dynamics.

And so, that was probably more the consensus.  Not that anybody said overtly they’d be opposed to a military strike, but they all said there has to be a response in some way, somehow — the U.N.  And there was a strong adherence to the U.N.  That’s the point — the objective of the body, why it was formed, and let’s — let’s go there first.  I mean, there was strong support of that.

To your other question, again, the way much of — at least what I’ve seen — the reporting that was done on the President’s decision to go to Congress, it was kind of like out of nowhere this came, that he didn’t get any advice from people.  And he and Denis walked in the garden and — and then there was some epiphany.

Not at all.  That’s not the way it happened.  I mean, yes, when — when the actual calls to seek Congress’s support were made — the president had already been thinking about this.  We had been talking about it in National Security Council meetings.  All different options were on the table.  I mean, the president asked for those options.  He likes the give and take.  He asked for the give and take.  Everybody expresses themselves very openly and frankly on these things, as they should.

So it wasn’t this abrupt, out of nowhere lightning strike.  And so, I mean, I wasn’t surprised by the President’s decision.  And I don’t think it was out of left field — I can’t speak for anybody else — because we had talked about this scenario.  It was one of the question of ‘should we or shouldn’t we?’; ‘is this the right thing to do?’  And one of the points that was made in those discussions, the president talked about, was about the role of Congress.

Here you have the President, the Vice President, Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense, National Security Council members.  All products of the United States Senate.  We all came out of the United States Senate.  All four of us believed strongly, and we do today, on the role of Congress; Article I in the Constitution — the role of Congress on foreign policy, taking a nation to war.  And, I mean, you can have technical debates on is it war or not war.  But when you employ your military, there is some component of war.  I mean, I think that’s just common sense.

So, you know, this just didn’t come out of nowhere.  This was something that was discussed and the president felt that it was the right thing to do.  Now, he also said at the same time that he believed that he had the  Constitutional authority as Commander in Chief, within the War Powers Act and under current laws, to take unilateral action based on what he thought and thinks is a threat to our security.

And he laid that out very clearly, that he would keep that option open.  And I think he should.  And I thought that that was the appropriate way to go.  And I said in testimony and other conversations that, again I’m not speaking for anybody else, but as Secretary of Defense, I strongly supported every step along the way of series of options and decisions the President made.


Q: I just want to tie a few things together and get your reaction.

So, I — I sometimes wonder if — if Chuck Hagel is the Asian pivot.  You’re out negotiating, talking about access arrangements, spending a lot of time in Asia.  But at the same time, I’m reminded that during the turmoil in Egypt, you were the point person talking to General al-Sisi regularly.  And the deal, somewhat remarkable deal that I think hasn’t received as much attention as it probably deserves is the triple-part arms deal with Israel, the UAE and the Saudis.  When one looks back at that, and looks at the fact that whether they were all tied together formally or just giving winks and nods to each other — from my talking to Israelis is that they were quite comfortable and aware and supportive of the fact that the Saudis were in the deal.  This is pretty amazing given the history that when AIPAC was formed, it was formed out of frustration over an AWACS arms sale from the United States to Saudi Arabia.

So, it was a remarkable change.  I know that you were deeply involved in that.  So, I am interested in this notion of the Asia pivot and whether you’re the administration person who’s quietly laying the groundwork for substantial relationship and infrastructure development there.  But at the same time, you’re playing this unique role at certain key moments in the Middle East, particularly in Egypt, and then, you know, also this military positioning with Syria.

So I know this is a long question and have packed a few things here, but I feel like it’s important, so —


SEC. HAGEL:  Yeah, no, no it’s very important.  It’s very important.

Well, let me break down the components of your question.

SEC. HAGEL:  On Asia, no, I — I’m playing my role, but — but the Vice President has a lot of responsibility for this.  You know, everybody has a role to play in this.  The president’s going over there in a week, I think next week.  So, I may be playing more of a role than a Secretary of Defense might otherwise play, but here’s where I see all that.  And actually, my view of that before I ever got in this job.

The president’s decision to rebalance was more than just, as you know, military and security dimensions of that Asia-Pacific relationship.  It had to be and continued to be grounded, anchored by economic development and opportunities, friendships, partnerships, historic relationships.  We’ve always been a Pacific power.  So there wasn’t anything new in that sense.  It was a rebalance, which was exactly the right thing for all the reasons that anybody who knows anything about Asia — the demographics, the people, the markets, the economies.

Now, I also said we’re not retreating from any part of the world either.  The president made that pretty clear in his speech at the U.N.  We’re not retreating from anyplace.  But you’re always rebalancing and you’re always adjusting and you’re always realigning, depending on opportunities and threats and so on.  So that’s not new.

I can play a role in that.  I want to play a role in that.  And I’ll continue to play a role in there as long as the President wants me to.  So I can take some initiatives based on some of my responsibilities as Secretary of Defense.  But we don’t want to lose sight of that rebalancing because we are so completely focused on — we haven’t even talked about Afghanistan, interestingly enough, in this interview.

It is the one country where —

Q:  That’s the fourth thing I wanted to squeeze into the last question. (Laughter.)


SEC. HAGEL:  Okay.  We’ll talk about that just briefly, because I think we need to.  We’re still at war.  It’s the one country we’re still in war at, and we’re still losing people.  We’ve still got a lot of people over there.

So, now with the Middle East and all the different things happening simultaneously, and the priorities of Iran and Syria and chemical weapons, and Afghanistan and Pakistan, and North Korea.  We don’t want to lose sight of our key priorities in Asia.  So I can play a role in that.  I intend to continue to play a role in that within my capacity to do that.  But I’m not — I wouldn’t call myself the point man on this front.  I mean, I think probably the Vice President has the main responsibility.  But I can play a role and maybe I can expand the role.


Q:  On Afghanistan?


SEC. HAGEL:  No, on Asia.  I’m going to leave Afghanistan until the end.

On the Middle East, in particular the arms deals and so on, I think, as you know, when I went over there and we announced those deals and we signed those agreements, I went to Saudi Arabia and I went to Egypt and saw al-Sisi.  And I went to Jordan and UAE and spent a lot of time there because all of this needed to be bolted together.

It just happened that it kind of fell in my arena at the right time.  And as you may know, I have relationships with all those people.  I’ve had over the years substantial contact with leaders in Israel as well as all the Arab countries.  And I’ve always tried to keep a balanced relationship because I think they all need each other.  And I think it’s becoming clearer and clearer that that is the case.

So maybe I have some credibility that was built up in the Senate over the years with a lot of these groups.  So I can play maybe play a role in moving this kind of cooperation forward.


Q:  Well, what’s interesting, if I may, is they all acted like they needed each other.  And I’ve never seen that happen.


SEC. HAGEL:  Yeah, well, I think that’s just — that’s the intersection that we’re — we’re approaching in common interests.  And it’s clearly in the common interests of Israel and the Arab countries to have that clarity.  And where do they go here?  Is this perpetual war that’s going to get worse?  And chemical weapons maybe; maybe nuclear weapons?  I don’t think responsible people and responsible governments want to go there.  So, you know, eventually you will get to some point where cooperation is more sensible.

Now, once you get to that intersection of interests, it’s a matter of how then do you manage all this and what do you do about it to actually start bolting together the required facets to capitalize on common interests, to actually do something and move forward.  And I think this case was one area where these interests came together.

So, I mean, I played a role in this, but I don’t take any particular credit.  It was just kind of where it was at the time and I could do some things most likely because I had some unique relationships that were helpful in the region.


Q:  But you did meet General al-Sisi during this effort?


SEC. HAGEL:  I did meet him.  And I spent a day on Egypt.  I still talk to him – still.


Q:  I read the readouts.  Is he listening to you?


SEC. HAGEL:  Well —


Q:  You don’t get his readouts. (Laughter.)


SEC. HAGEL:  I sent him a book, by the way, last week — a book on Washington, Ron Chernow’s.


Q:  Oh, on George Washington.


SEC. HAGEL:  Yeah, on George Washington.


Q:  That’s a great book, a huge book.  I always found it interesting that one of the revelations that Chernow shared in that book was George Washington’s really terrible relationship with his mother.  But we can discuss that another time.


SEC. HAGEL:  Well, the specific chapter that I focused on with General al-Sisi, with whom I have had conversations with many times:  Are you going to be the George Washington or are you going to be the Mubarak of Egypt?  So, I point out in the book, and I told him, that one of the last chapters on how Washington walked away from power.


So, we’ll see how that affects him, how things work out.


Q:  Amazing story.


SEC. HAGEL:  It is an amazing story.


Q:  Great book.


SEC. HAGEL:  Yes, it’s a great book.

And anyway, I do think, you know, nations have their own self-interest.  And personal relationships are not going to change those or shift those.  But what personal relationships do do is they provide a lubricant.  And if that lubricant is not there in relationships, then there is no relationship.  And then it’s just a straight kind of factual numbers business.  And personal relationships do sand some things down where at least you can get some antennas turned on.  And your receivers are on both ways, rather than just transmitting, you actually get a country’s receiver turned on.  And your receiver has to be on.  And we probably would all be better off if we turned more of our transmitters off and our receivers on.  But we’ll see.

But, you know, I think again that you’ve got to look at Egypt in the context of the larger framework of the Middle East.  Where are our interests?  Where are America’s interests here?  And I don’t think the Middle East –- given all the problems in each of these countries and also regionally – is going to be solved in a year or two.


Q:  Right.


SEC. HAGEL:  These are going to play out.  And I think Egypt is somewhat of an example of that.  There was Mubarak, and then an election and then Morsi, and now Morsi’s gone.  Now there’s an interim government.  They’re moving toward a new constitution — and elections.  There are going to be twists and turns.  Where all that goes, I don’t know.

So we end this way, and then we’ll go to Afghanistan real quick.


Q:  Yes.


SEC. HAGEL:  I’m very much a realist, always have been.  But I’m also an optimist.  But I’m clear-eyed.  I see the world pretty clear — doesn’t mean I’m smart, doesn’t mean I’m right on everything or anything maybe.  But I come at everything on a basis on what’s real, not — not what do I hope would be the case, but what I really have here.

Take the budget, for example, or any component of what I’m dealing with day-to-day here as Secretary of Defense.  I get information.  I get real numbers and situations.  Now, I’ve got to manage through this material and scenarios.  I’ve got to take those numbers —


Q:  Those are your part of your strategic choices review?


SEC. HAGEL:  Exactly right, which probably did more to help me understand this institution than any one thing because it — when we looked at the entire components of this institution, that probably educated me quicker than any one thing could have.  Now, that wasn’t the intention of why I asked for it.  But the process has been a huge benefit to me — I put a lot of time in it.  I spent a lot of time going hours and hours and hours and trying to understand all of what is going on here.  Because I have to.  Oh, I suppose I could defer it to comptroller and so on.

But that review helped me.  And I don’t want to get off the point here, but — I’m optimistic about where we go from here; realistic too. There will be bumps in the road.  We may get knocked back.  I don’t know.

But I don’t think you can come at world affairs without a realistic perspective – but at the same time, leaders can’t afford but be optimistic because the people you lead, the people who look to you for accountability, responsibility — they have to have some hope. Be honest, too, which I tell everybody.  The first day I was here, I told our chiefs, I told everybody, “Always be honest. Go to the Hill, be honest.  Don’t overstate anything.  But don’t understate it.  Just — just give them the facts.  Just be honest.”  So that’s kind of where I am on Middle East and where we are.

Now, Afghanistan.  That’s still complicated.  We need a bilateral security agreement we don’t have yet.  That’s a key.  I’m very involved in that because we don’t have an arrangement in place.  Then the President cannot make any post-2014 commitments and decisions for the reasons we all understand.  That means our allies are probably going to be left out on where they’re going to be.


Q:  Are you hung up on the same thing in Afghanistan as we were in Iraq, on the Status of Forces agreement?


SEC. HAGEL:  Well, there are a number of issues and we’re working through those.  Now, I’m hopeful that we can get this done, but it has to get done very soon.  The Congress wants to know when this is going to settled.  We’ve still got a lot of people over there.  We’re getting them out on schedule.  We’ve got a lot of materiel over there.  We’re getting that out on schedule.  You’ve got the complication of Pakistan on one side, which is going to continue to be a complication.   You know, how we deal with those issues; how we manage that.  And of course, Iran’s on the other side.

So, we can’t lose sight of our obligations here.  And I remind our people here every day that we can’t lose sight that we’re still at war in one place, and that’s Afghanistan.  And we can’t take our eye off the ball.  And our guys don’t.  I mean, our chiefs, we’ve got some of the best leaders I think that this institution has now and has had in General Dunford over there.  Lloyd Austin is our CENTCOM commander — I think two of the absolute best, common sense, capable people that we’ve produced out of this institution in a long time.

So, I mean, I’m hopeful.  We’ll get there.  But still a lot of serious issues ahead of us in Afghanistan to complete the transition.  And then we have to decide what’s the next steps are — we’ve said train, assist, advise; that our combat role is over.  It’s going to continue to be over, but we want to continue to have some presence to help them so on and so on.

The Afghan army has made tremendous progress.  If you look at the history of Afghanistan, the geography of Afghanistan, the demographics of Afghanistan, they don’t have a very good record on any kind of authority, central government ever being able to really govern that country.

So, it’s difficult on a good day, and I’m hopeful, though, because, again, common interests do always bring people back to some core sense of their future.  Now, whether they’re wise enough to see it and to do something about it is something else.  But I will end this way.

That’s where strategically we need to go.  And I think President Obama has really given some significant leadership and vision to this the last five years.  Vice President Biden has helped him immensely on this, too.  Kerry gets this.  John Kerry, I mean — to have Kerry where he is at this time I think is about as important as we could have as a Secretary of State.  He knows the issues and he’s studied them deeply.

And what I want to say is this.  On helping to build allies’ capacity — we can’t do it.  I mean, we’re — I don’t think we’re going to get ourselves into another two wars anytime soon or be putting over 100,000 of our troops on the ground and all that went into that.  So, what’s the answer, then, in a dangerous world, an interconnected world, complicated world?

The answer is alliances.  The answer is help build each of those countries in their capacity to deal with terrorism — cyber, all these threats that face all of mankind.  They’re not limited to borders, nations or even regions.  So, the more and stronger we can develop and build our alliances and our relationships — they’ll all imperfect.  You don’t need to have everything exactly lined up.  You never will, but just enough, just enough to serve our interests, their interests and the common purpose of making the world better, the world safer.

Because in the end, this is about making a better world.  It is about our future.  It is about leaving it better than we found it.


Q:  Two-second question?  Thank you for all this, by the way, Mr. Secretary.

I am interested that when you look at the history of defense secretaries, many defense secretaries, particularly with the kind of role you have of reshaping a place, dealing with sequestration and dealing with huge transitions often have a — I think it’s fair to say an adversarial relationship with their command staff.  And somehow it seems to me that you’ve avoided that.

And I’m interested in how you see your relations with these generals and admirals with whom you work every day.  Because you are dealing with substantial budget cuts, substantial resource constraints.  Why aren’t you guys at war with each other?


SEC. HAGEL:  Well —


Q:  Or am I missing something?


SEC. HAGEL:  I can’t respond for them.  You can ask them, as you probably will.  I’ll give you my response for this Secretary of Defense.

When I first got here, the day I got here, when I went and visited every chief, every secretary and senior enlisted, I said, “No matter what happens, we’re going to all be together.  I will always listen to you.  I will always listen carefully.  I will seek out your advice.  I’ll need your advice.  All these big issues that we’re sailing into, we’re going in together.  We’re coming out together.”  That’s what I said to them.

We’re going in together.  We’re coming out together.  There will be differences.  I understand that.  There should be differences.  You each have — and this is something else I said to them, “You each have responsibility for your own service.  I get that, as it should be.  You must focus on that responsibility.  But you have a higher responsibility.  I have a higher responsibility.  And that’s to this country.  That trumps — that trumps each service.  And as long as we all understand that and can agree on that, we’ll get through it.  And I’ll support you.”

And that’s the way I went in it.  And I told them I’d always be honest with them.  I’ll never, ever play games with you.  And I haven’t.  I said, “I don’t want you playing games with me.”  They’re honest with me.  I spend a lot of time with them.  I’m in the tank with them once a week.  We have meetings once a week.  I have lunches.  I mean, I’m with them all the time.

You stay close to them.  You listen to them.  And, I guess, probably where I start is from my own military experience.  I’ve always had a very positive, strong sense of the military, respected the leaders.

And these are unique guys, too.  I mean, having nothing to do with me.  I am so fortunate to have General Dempsey as my partner.  He is one of the best, smartest, well-grounded, common sense guys I’ve ever dealt with.


Q:  Sings well.


SEC. HAGEL:  And sings well. (Laughter.)


But all those chiefs, all those chiefs are really good human beings, to start with, and really care about their country, really care about their people.  And we all share that same feeling.  So I like them personally.  I get along well with them.  I like it.  I make an effort to do that.  There will be differences.  There are differences.  But we resolve our differences, Steve, right up front.




— Steve Clemons is Washington Editor at Large at The Atlantic, where a different version of this post first appeared. Clemons can be followed on Twitter at @SCClemons


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