Hagel Looks Ahead

A conversation with Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel on post-Bush America.

AI: Senator, it’s a pleasure to talk to an independent thinker here in the Russell Building who’s not afraid to voice his views. I want to talk mainly about the future, after the Bush Administration passes into history, but let me start off with a personal question: You’re often referred to as a realist. Do you accept that label, and whether you do or not, where do you think your basic approach to politics came from—parents, grandparents, certain teachers or books, your experience in Vietnam?

Senator Hagel: I don’t pay much attention to labels, and I do get labeled—“realist”, “moderate”, “conservative”, “maverick”, and so on. I just am what I am and what I believe. As to the specifics of the term “realist”, I think that any of us with responsibilities for helping to govern this country have to be realists; we have to start from the base of reality. That doesn’t mean we ignore the hope and possibility of making a better world. I’m as exuberant about the future of our country and the world as anyone, but I try to connect my hopes to reality. One reason we’re in so much trouble today in Iraq and the Middle East is that we’ve disconnected the reality of the consequences of invasion with the noble objective of promoting democracy. It’s a worthy goal, but how do you get there? How do you establish a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli dilemma under conditions where both leaderships are too weak to compromise and deliver?

As to where my approach to politics comes from, well, of course we’re all products of our environments. My parents shaped me in the conversations about politics we had at the dinner table in our small town in midwestern Nebraska. My grandparents talking about Eisenhower, and a couple of outstanding teachers in high school who developed my interest in politics helped, too. My experience in Vietnam certainly shaped my attitudes about war and its consequences. It taught me that war is not an abstraction, and in Washington we like to deal in abstractions and theories. But our abstractions are often too disconnected from the reality of the rifleman who risks getting his brains blown out or losing his legs. We forget all that, and just slap a bumper sticker on our car that says “Support the Troops.”

However my views got formed, I hope I haven’t lost the ability to learn and listen and frame the world in new ways. I like new experiences. Always have. I suppose growing up in rural Nebraska made me that way.

AI: Thomas Schelling once wrote that everything important he ever learned about strategic interaction he learned from observing his own family life. I understand that you and your wife have two teenage children. What have your kids been teaching you lately?

Senator Hagel: That’s a wise observation Schelling made. I subscribe to it. That’s another experience that certainly shapes us all who are fortunate enough to become parents, and parenting teenagers is as great a challenge as anyone will ever have in life. If you can help produce a thoughtful, responsible, contributing citizen, then you have done as good a job as the good Lord ever asked us to do.

AI: With 11 years gone and one more to go in the Senate, how do you think back on your time here? Some say you’ve moved from many standard conservative positions to more centrist ones. You think that’s a fair description?

Senator Hagel: It is, and part of it has to do with what I’ve learned about the complexity of most of the issues we face as a society. We’re rarely confronted with easy calls, with a clearly “right” and a clearly “wrong” side. Life generally is not that way. But some people, from both parties, like to live in a world of absolutes, and that has polarized politics and strangled any bipartisan progress. People won’t work toward any kind of compromise when they feel they’re giving up their values, standards and beliefs. It has become clear to me, over the course of my 11 years working in this sausage factory here, that without any consensus on how to behave in order to move our country forward, we’re essentially paralyzed. I’ve moved toward the middle because that’s where I think the effective solutions are.

I’ve also learned to better appreciate the importance of personal relationships in how things work here. I’ve seen this President of the United States establish virtually no personal relationships, and it has cost the country. His position has been, “It’s either my way or the highway, because I’m the Decider.” But when you don’t have the lubricant of personal relationships in a democratic government—any form of government, really, but especially a two-party democracy—the gears will lock up, and the system will break down. That’s what has happened, and both sides are to blame.

It’s a very distressing dynamic, but I think the next president will understand that and act on that. Better personal relationships will form, and we’ll see a bipartisan cabinet, among other changes. It’s not a matter of choice, because the challenges facing this country are so immense that we can’t afford another four years of paralysis.

AI: I think you’re right twice that both sides are to blame—Democrats and Republicans, the Executive Branch and the Legislative Branch. But many observers reserve special blame for Karl Rove’s persuading President Bush to govern from his base, not from the center. One way to characterize this Administration is that the President has been either unwilling or unable to form governing coalitions and connect policy ideas to their implementation, whether in foreign or domestic policy. It’s a fundamental question of management style. Is that also your view?

Senator Hagel: Yes, and you suggested something here that’s important: governing coalitions as distinct from political coalitions. We’ve placed a lot of focus on political coalitions, and this White House has pursued tactical political victories with the result that a sense of the responsibility of governing has been lost. The American president sets the tone and establishes how the process will work; he’s the only one in Washington who can command national attention. That’s why the president carries the greater responsibility to reach out. He (or she) can’t govern otherwise, especially with a 51–49 split in Congress.

Think of Reagan’s tone with Tip O’Neil. Those two were about as far apart philosophically as can be, but Reagan reached out to him. They told each other stories, grew to like each other, and that helped them find common ground. An example from the other side was Bill Frist campaigning against Tom Daschle a few years ago. As far as I know, that was unprecedented: No Senate leader had ever gone into another leader’s state to work against him. So along comes Monday morning, and we’re all supposed to sit down together and figure out how to make the Senate work. Well, that makes it hard, and it’ll stay hard as long as we’re too concerned with forming political coalitions and not concerned enough with forming governing ones.

AI: Another factor, I think, is that many more Americans now wear religion on their sleeves. There used to be a kind of lowest-common-denominator Protestant-flavored patriotism in this country, and with it came a general reluctance to invoke theology in public. Now people deploy religious explanations for all kinds of issues—abortion, homosexual marriage, stem cell research, a host of education issues and more besides. It seems to me that this makes compromise on sensitive issues much harder. When George Romney ran for president in 1968, few seemed to care that he was a Mormon. Now nearly everyone seems to care that Mitt is. Why do you think this has happened?

Senator Hagel: I think there has been an organized polarization that has been orchestrated on this issue. Certainly, religion is important to almost everyone I know, and certainly people have a right to know about a candidate’s religious beliefs. That’s a natural part of how we judge integrity and character. But as the Founders understood, beyond that, religion needs to be kept a private matter. Religion has to be a factor that guides us as responsible adults, but it should not be invoked as a club in public debate. I worry that we’ve crossed a line here, that we’ve moved away from the balance the Founders intended by trying to make religion a kind of qualifier for everything, or a part of everything, we do. A lot of political operatives have used religion not as a unifier, but as a crass mobilization tool to win elections by dividing people. That’s absolutely wrong.

AI: When you look at the Executive Branch from the perspective of Congress, do you see the same dysfunction others see, specifically in terms of interagency operations? We’re using a legacy system from 1947 that has been tinkered with over the years, and some now argue that the system is so misaligned with current realities that even the right people in the right places are running out of workarounds to get things done. Some are urging the equivalent of a Goldwater-Nichols for the interagency. How do you size up these arguments?

Senator Hagel: Well, let’s step back some and start with the size of our government. Our government budget is about $3 trillion, and we have the biggest governmental entity in the world. Hundreds of thousands of people labor in it, and all 535 members of Congress think they’re smarter than everyone else at knowing how to make it all work. So you already have a potential disaster on your hands. Actually, sometimes I’m surprised it works as well as it does.

But I think you’re right: A new, 21st-century review of the interagency relationships must be a priority of the next president. We’re desperately in need of a 21st-century frame of reference to address the great issues and challenges now upon us, not least the need to enable Americans to succeed economically in the most competitive world we’ve ever known. The tentacles of the Federal monstrosity wrap themselves around everything—tax policy, environmental and food safety regulation, Medicare, whatever it is. We’ve essentially got a government that’s out of control, and this has nothing to do with whether government is inherently good or bad. That’s an irrelevant question, because we’re dependent on government. The nonsense we still hear about “big government” versus “small government” is stale campaign rhetoric from thirty years ago that never made much sense.

Besides, some of my Republican friends are the greatest builders of big government we’ve seen in years. The Republican Party, which has controlled things for most of the past seven or eight years, is responsible for a third of the national debt and has built a bigger government: Look at “No Child Left Behind” or Medicare Part D. That wasn’t the Democrats. It was us, the “small government” party.

I think the 44th President of the United States needs to empanel an outside commission to study this critical problem, to provide specific guidance on how we could do this better. We need to be deliberate and rational about this, not just react to crises. For example, in the wake of September 11, 2001, the first knee-jerk reaction was to build the Department of Homeland Security. So we roll up 22 different agencies and departments into one monolithic, unmanageable, uncontrollable, unaccountable departmental mess. It doesn’t mean the people there are bad, but it’s still a mess. You’ve got $40 billion going into this, and we’ve actually made things worse while thinking we’ve made it better.

AI: Would you offer up the same criticism of the reform of the intelligence community? I don’t see that the new Directorate of National Intelligence setup is an improvement over what we had before.

Senator Hagel: No, it isn’t an improvement. It’s just another layer on top of another layer and so on. But we have to give that a couple more years to see how it works. One of the things we have done right, I believe, is to put new focus on integrating our intelligence capabilities among the 16 independent agencies. The independence of those agencies, I’ve always argued, is very important. We don’t want one monolithic agency. There are dangerous consequences to that. Rumsfeld argued that he should have control of all the intelligence departments. I have nothing against Rumsfeld, but no one person should have that much power in a democracy, no matter how smart or decent he is. But we do need better integration in the intelligence function. I would suggest the next president empanel a commission of wise people, something like the Hoover Commission.

AI: Well, as you know, we tried something similar, the Hart-Rudman Commission (1999–March 2001), which looked into the whole range of national security-related structures. I think it did a pretty good job, though I confess I’m biased, since I was that report’s chief writer. The original Hart-Rudman DHS model was a decentralized, regionalized, FEMA-centric, small-Washington-footprint concept. But then it went into the sausage grinder and came out this ponderous behemoth you’ve just described. I still can’t figure out how it happened.

Senator Hagel: What happened to Hart-Rudman is that it never really got the attention of this White House, and therefore was never going anywhere. As you know, the president has to lead on these things. He has to say, “I’m going to make this happen, even if it costs me a second term.” You have to seriously back up those commissions, and in this case that was not done.

AI: Let’s talk about some specific issues, starting with immigration. You stood with the President on immigration. It was one of the bravest things he’s done in the White House—the one big domestic policy issue where he went against his base. And it didn’t work. What went wrong, and what does the next president have to do to succeed in getting immigration reform?

Senator Hagel: When you talk about these specific issues, you always have to start with the political environment you’re dealing within. There’s a timing dynamic to that. Sometimes the timing isn’t right, sometimes it is. The political environment was especially difficult for this issue, and in it resides a very deliberate, sophisticated, focused political element that will always oppose immigration reform. In this case, look at Lou Dobbs and Rush Limbaugh.

AI: I’d rather not, if you don’t mind.

Senator Hagel: These sophisticated elements in television and radio that reach millions of people use a segmented, targeted marketing approach to exercise a small percentage of the population to respond to anti-immigrant, anti-anything xenophobia. That’s an uncontrollable reality you have to deal with. What went wrong here is that the White House never understood that so strong a force was there. A lot of people underestimated that, including me.

I can’t quite explain the intensity of it, the hatred and the passion and the emotion in a lot of otherwise balanced people, including those in my own constituency. But in part it’s a manifestation of people in this country just plain being unhappy, which is expressed in every poll. You ask the one question, “right way or wrong way?” and between 68 and 70 percent think the country is headed in the wrong direction. That has held steady for about the past year and a half. When you have an unhappy population, everything is a potential threat. That lower socioeconomic class looks around and sees the Hispanics working hard and doing the jobs they won’t take, of course, and says, “Why are they here, and why do I have to pay for their education and healthcare?” The pot gets stirred up. So that’s a big part of the answer: You have an unhappy country getting unhappier by the day.

AI: Is it unhappy, or is it afraid?

Senator Hagel: Both, and yes, there is a connection. You have an unhappy country that thinks we’re headed in the wrong direction, and that’s being exacerbated by the sub-prime mortgage disaster, the cost of oil and gasoline, unemployment, and two wars. That, then, leads to fear. This Administration has played on fear since September 11 for raw political purposes. Karl Rove told the RNC in 2006 that we won two elections on terrorism and so on, and we can win another one. They didn’t. The American people will catch up. You can fool them for a while—that quote from Lincoln is exactly right—but eventually the American people will sort things out. People are afraid, and for a lot of reasons. A recent Hart poll that says seven out of ten people believe their children’s future will not be good or as bright as their own life. That is astounding, and it’s unprecedented in our history. It has never gone beyond 50 percent since that question started being asked.

AI: That explains the broader setting that made success in immigration reform elusive, but were there political mistakes, too?

Senator Hagel: Yes, definitely. Another part of the answer is that the White House never built a consensus on this issue. Last year, we had a bill pass, the Hagel-Martinez bill, and it went on to pass in the House. It was the first time in my 11 years in the Senate that we had two bills pass and there was no conference committee ever called between them. That is a failure of leadership, big time. And the Republicans controlled Congress! The President’s own party wouldn’t call a conference. I find that amazing.

That’s not all. When the Democrats came into control of Congress, I went to a meeting at the Dirksen Building last February, and there were five Republican senators there and two Cabinet members who were supposed to lead immigration reform for the President: the Secretary of Commerce and the Secretary of Homeland Security. Both wise people, both good people, but they don’t understand the Hill. They have no personal relationships here, no sense of how we do things. They’re not the two guys you’d want up here on this issue.

Worse, the entire approach was to devise a Republican immigration reform bill and get the Republicans together behind it. I was astounded, and so I said, “Hey guys, the Democrats are now in charge. You’re going to come up with an immigration reform bill based on a Republican consensus? When are you going to let the Democrats in on this? How are you going to pass this?” Rather than starting with Bush calling up Harry Reid and Dick Durbin and the other senior Democrats who know about this, the Republicans sat around in discussions and kept everyone else out. Bush never said, “Work together to fix the problem. There’s enough credit to go around.” He never did that. That’s a perfect example of what went wrong. His own base is against him, because he never educated the base. It’s always been, to go back to Rove, about political, tactical victories. It’s been about Rove’s dream of ensuring a Republican majority for the next fifty years—the second phase of the Nixon strategy. It has never been about governing the country. It has never been about building consensus.

AI: There’s a foreign policy dimension to the immigration puzzle, of course. In our last issue, Miguel Centeno noted something very interesting: If you compare the incentive structures in a NAFTA-like arrangement with those of the European Union’s much broader “accession criteria” approach, you see that the latter is far more successful over time. Obviously, the problem we have with illegal immigration is a push-pull phenomenon: We need the labor, but it’s economic weakness in Mexico and Central America that pushes people in our direction. Obviously, too, we don’t contemplate accession criteria for the purpose of creating a North American Union like the EU. But wouldn’t it make sense for us to incentivize better governance in our southern neighbors, rather than just have conventional trade agreements?

Senator Hagel: Maybe so. I agree with the push-pull analysis, which recognizes the economic distress that affects people willing to risk losing their lives and give up their families to come here. And I’m very concerned about the protectionist streak that’s developing within my party and that breaks against what you’re talking about. We should rethink these issues in a larger, integrated way. But we haven’t had real strategic thinking for years, in any recent administration. We haven’t had the kind of broader thinking that could put immigration, as well as many others issues, into a genuine strategic context.

AI: Let me ask you now about agriculture, another domestic policy issue with major foreign policy implications. I was very sad when Senator Lugar’s bill went down last month, which I know you voted for. How can we fix the problem of these agriculture subsidies? What should the next president do? For example, should the next administration try to split apart the legislative process that combines agricultural subsidies with food stamps, that back-scratching arrangement that almost guarantees passage?

Senator Hagel: President Bush actually came forward with some good alternatives on this, which I support. Lugar has the right approach, too. Anyone who’s looked honestly at this recognizes the problem. But the special interests’ grip on this is so tight. I don’t mean to point out any bad guys here, but look at the Southerners who control the committees: You’ve got Cochran on appropriations, and that’s rice and cotton. You’ve got Chambliss, the ranking Republican on agriculture: rice and cotton. My guys in the Midwest are all represented: corn and wheat and soy and beets. But the special interest groups have so much control over the process that they strangle reform bills before they can go anywhere.

Everybody likes the Farm Bill because there’s a whole bushel full of goodies for everybody, whether you’re a Democrat, Republican, liberal or conservative. You can go back to your state and tell everybody, “We’re working together on this one and we’re going to take care of you.”

AI: Exactly the kind of bipartisanship we don’t need.

Senator Hagel: That’s right. The reason I voted against the Farm Bill in 2002, even being up for re-election that year, was that it was so far removed from the original purpose of farm policy. We’re subsidizing the big guys, allowing them to buy out the small guys. We’re taking land values and accelerating them, pricing them out of the market, making it impossible in many cases for families to keep their farms for the next generation. And of course we’re distorting global markets and harming many poor countries that need to earn investment funds from agricultural exports.

When the lawyers and investment guys in New York come out to buy land in Nebraska, they know what comes with it: the deed to the land comes with a contract from the Federal government that says a check will come every month, whether you plant or not. The ramifications of this for our trade policy and our economy are serious. But you can’t fix these problems without going back to where I started: We need political leaders who know how to build a consensus for positive change.

AI: Let me ask you a question about energy: If we have mandatory air bags and mandatory seatbelts in our cars, why can’t we have, at the expense of around $100 per vehicle, mandatory multi-fuel cars? We have abundant ways to produce electricity in this country, as opposed to our shortage of conventional transportation fuels. Why can’t we do this?

Senator Hagel: We are going to do it. The market is developing, and the government will catch up, because the markets always win. The market is the only truthful barometer on anything. It may tell you something you don’t want to know, but it’s an equalizer and a self-correcting process. The market always produces in the end the reality of what’s going on.

AI: Always? We’ve had an energy independence policy since the Nixon Administration, and things have only gotten worse. It that because the market signals were weak, or because the markets have been distorted by oligopolies?

Senator Hagel: Markets can be delayed and distorted, but the car companies and the oil companies are on to this now, whatever happened in the past. Their executives are putting huge amounts of money into developing alternative sources of energy. Two main realities are pushing them. One is that most large oil fields are in unpredictable areas where there are nuts in charge, like Venezuela, or where politics is very dicey, like in the Niger River Delta, the Middle East and so on. The second is the environmental pressure of carbon emissions. The markets are dictating this and telling us where this is all going, and the car technologies are going to come. The other part of that is an acceptance on the part of the American people. I think you’re going to see an explosion of technology over the next four years in the automobile industry as consumers increasingly accept it.

AI: Let’s talk more pointedly now about foreign policy. We might as well start with the most neuralgic issue of all: Iraq. About this time last year, you made some fairly sharp remarks about the surge. You were against it. Now that the security premise of the surge seems to be bearing fruit, what’s your view now?

Senator Hagel: My point about the surge was that it was a tactic with the proper objective to help stabilize and secure the country, but you cannot make policy without some broader strategy for establishing common ground leading to genuine political reconciliation.

And what I also said was that when you increase American firepower and involvement as we did—when you add 35,000 troops or even more to an existing 135,000 and spend $15 billion per month—you’re not going to be able to sustain that. The more involvement, meaning the more men, materiel and dollar commitment you make to any project, the more difficult it is to unwind that, to bring those people out, to get out of that hole that you’re in. We found this out in Vietnam and any time we’re engaged militarily. We now find ourselves unable to get out of that hole precisely because there has been almost no progress toward the ultimate objective, the only one that counts, and that’s political reconciliation by the Iraqis, which is something we can’t do for them. If they’re unable to do that—and this is what we have today—then you have a situation where we can’t really win by staying, but we can’t leave either without triggering a complete debacle that’ll harm our reputation worldwide.

AI: It comes down to a matter of cognitive dissonance: We’re investing our ego in it, too, as well as men, money and blood, which makes it hard to reverse gears.

Senator Hagel: That’s right, and here the term “quagmire” could apply. Some reject that term, but if that’s not a quagmire, then what is? Some people are telling me, on the one hand, that we’ve made such great strides and that the surge has “worked”, but they’re also telling me we can’t get out.

What are the realities here? Any time you flood the zone with superior American military power, of course you’re going to have a consequence. It’s like invading Iraq and making short work of Saddam Hussein and his military. Was there ever really any question about that? Of course not, but that’s not the issue. The issue is that the surge’s supposed working leaves us in a situation where we’re spending more money in Iraq today than ever. We still have more troops there than we’ve almost ever had any other time. We’re still losing troops. We’ve already lost almost as many Americans in 11 days in January as in the entire month of December. And the Iraqi government is no closer to achieving political reconciliation than it ever was. In fact, four provinces in the southern part of Iraq have been reduced to growing chaos, thanks to fighting among contending Shi‘a militias. The Turks have invaded the north to get at the PKK sanctuaries there. There’s less oil being produced. Most Baghdad neighborhoods remain decimated, and its people are increasingly segregated into sectarian enclaves.

By any reasonable political standard, there’s been very little progress at all. Is this anyone’s definition of victory? So I stand by my judgment of the surge. Tactical military successes don’t by themselves add up to strategic political success. That’s what I was talking about a year ago, and that’s been my point all along.

AI: Your analysis reminds me of Ambassador Ronald Neumann’s assessment of Afghanistan, which you have cited in some of your speeches: You can win every battle in Afghanistan, but if you don’t solve the political problem that makes the border area in Waziristan an eternal supply of trouble, then you can never win the war.

Senator Hagel: Afghanistan is a good example of thinking tactical successes can overtake a strategic, political problem. We’re falling behind in Afghanistan by any measure. One is the acknowledgment that we’re calling for 3,000 more Marines to go there. Another is the record number of poppy crops growing. Another is looking at the provinces in the south that are at best half under the control of the Afghan government. The Ambassador’s evaluation standards are exactly right.

We have a great way of dodging the reality of the political objectives and the measurements that eventually we’ll have to hold ourselves to and, more importantly, hold those people accountable to. The situations in Afghanistan and Iraq are different in many ways, but they’re similar in that the people themselves will determine the fate of their countries. We can’t do that for them. We can buy them time, and we can help them. We owe them that since we invaded their countries. But in the end, it will come down to the people themselves, what they want and what they can do for themselves, as it has always been throughout history.

AI: Are you worried about what’s liable to happen to NATO, now that it’s been dragged into Afghanistan?

Senator Hagel: Even before Afghanistan, there was a question about the future viability and credibility of NATO. We’ve been dealing with that since the implosion of the Soviet Union. Do we need NATO? If it can have a role, what should it be? What role should the Russians have in NATO? The Afghan deployment has added complications to what was a hard problem to begin with. Many of our European allies do not put the same priority on Afghanistan that we do. Hence many are now reducing or withdrawing the force structure they have there.

AI: And most have restricted what their forces can do when they are there.

Senator Hagel: That’s right. So we in the United States have a major disconnect with our NATO partners on a particularly fundamental and challenging issue. How can a coalition hold together when you have such a deep and wide difference? I happen to be a strong believer in NATO, but I think we’ve all been kidding ourselves here, thinking that the way to make NATO relevant again is to bring in all these east European countries. That’s fine for psychological purposes, but NATO is more than just a club for post-communist political therapy. It has to have strategic relevancy and a genuine mission in dealing with the realities of the 21st century.

I think we’re still struggling with that, and I would take issue with some of my colleagues who have been unsupportive of, or downright hostile toward, the Europeans working toward more of their own framework for foreign policy, security and economic policy—what Javier Solana is doing over there. We should welcome that. The EU is working toward taking care of Europe’s own security responsibilities and more besides, and that should be good news for us. It’s in our interests to accommodate that, not to disconnect from the Atlantic partnership, which is perhaps more critically important today than at any time since World War II. But this is a different world from the one that existed when NATO was established, and I don’t think we’ve faced the reality that we need a new strategic structure for NATO that takes into full account what the European Union is and may become.

AI: Let me ask another question about Afghanistan. I know you’ve been involved in attempts to find a just reconciliation for the historical episode of Agent Orange. When I was in the State Department I saw a proposal, and I won’t say from where, to spray poppy fields in Afghanistan using American aircraft with American insignia. This was a proposal put forward in 2004, to be implemented just a couple of months before Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections. It seemed to many of us an unwise thing to do, unless we wanted to drive people into the arms of the Taliban and the warlords. As you know, bad ideas never really go away; now this one is back, and it seems to me just as likely to be counterproductive as ever. Why don’t we just buy the damned opium crop instead?

Senator Hagel: Maybe that’s what we should do, but here again we see this town dealing in abstractions instead of in the reality of the human condition. What is the human condition in this equation? These are farmers who need to feed their families. They’re trying to scrape out an existence, and they probably don’t give much thought to where those poppies go and the damage they do to others. Now, we’ve talked about encouraging them to grow something else. That’s interesting in theory, but realistically, how are we going to do it in current deteriorating security conditions? We can’t transform all of the poppy farmers out there in 12 months by saying, “Why don’t you try corn or wheat instead?” While you’re experimenting with new crops and building confidence levels, you still have to do something with them that allows them to make a living. Perhaps all that money we’re spending on everything else should be directed to buying those poppy crops, and then, of course, burning them. Some would say that would be a waste, but is all we’re spending on killing people and bombing a smart use of money, seeing as how politically we’re getting nowhere?

There’s no easy solution here, but the only way to find one is to stand back and think strategically. Reacting to the crisis of the moment is not the way you win a tough political struggle. We’re virtually without any strategic thinking, here or in anything else we’ve done in the past few years around the world.

AI: Let me ask you a more abstract question, but one related to Iraq and Afghanistan: What do you think motivates jihadi terrorists to kill Americans? There are basically two theories out there. One is that they do it because they’re poor, frustrated and humiliated. The second is President Bush’s theory of the democratic deficit—that they do it because they have no space to let off steam and express themselves in their authoritarian political cultures. Neither explanation really gets at the essence, as far as I can see. But what’s your take on the now famous “Why do they hate us and want to kill us” question?

Senator Hagel: I don’t think there’s an easy, textbook answer to that question. I think it’s a number of things. I would start again by considering the human condition. When man is without hope, locked into a cycle of despair and without dignity, not much else matters, and there will be a consequence to that. There are other factors, such as those who are twisting religion into a political ideology for their own evil purposes, those who prey on people in despair.

Another factor is technology. Go back fifty or a hundred years, and we see that regions of the world locked in abject poverty had little exposure to the world outside. There was no Internet or television. As far as they knew, everybody lived more or less the same way they lived. When that began to change, the leaders of these regions often intentionally abused, mislead, lied to and took advantage of their own people in order to maintain the social hierarchies that benefited them. They tried to deal with the advent of modernity in ways that would benefit themselves. Eventually, some people reacted against that, and blamed their backwardness both on their leaders and on those abroad, like the United States, who appeared to support those leaders. Technology, too, has made it possible to cause harm to others, even those far away, in ways dramatically easier than was the case fifty or a hundred years ago.

I think you have to factor in all these dynamics to explain the motives and actions of terrorists. I think we need to try harder to employ a reverse optic if we want to deal effectively with the problem. Rather than viewing the world and judging it only by our values and standards, we also have to look at how others see the world. Why has much of the world lost confidence and trust in us? I don’t blame it all on us, but there’s something going on out there that we’re not connecting to, that we don’t really understand. And it’s obviously not something we can deal with effectively through military means alone.

AI: Speaking of a place where there’s hopelessness, let’s talk about Darfur. For years, the media and most of our political class has painted the Darfur conflict as a humanitarian problem, and the analogy always used is Rwanda. I’ve always thought that’s flat out wrong. Without painting the rebels in Darfur as angels or Boy Scouts, I’ve always thought this was essentially a political issue because its source lies in a fundamentalist Islamic regime in Khartoum. The right analogy isn’t Rwanda, but Halabja, the village in Kurdistan that Saddam Hussein gassed during the Anfal campaign. Both have been about Arabs attacking other Muslims to gain control of their land. Colin Powell rightly described what was going on there as genocide, but for years we’ve not done much about it—an awkward position to be in. How do you view the situation, and what do you think the next administration should do more effectively than the current one has?

Senator Hagel: The reality is that even great powers are limited in what they can do in the world. We can’t solve every problem. In Darfur our military capacity, even the greatest military might the world has ever known, is limited in what it can do. How would we effectively use firepower in Darfur? We are very limited in our ability to do some of the things we’d like to.

Of course, that brings great frustration. I’m asked everywhere I go in the country, “Senator, why aren’t we doing anything? This is genocide, and we sit back and do nothing.” First of all, we aren’t exactly doing nothing. We’re providing more aid than anybody. We’ve supported the African Union effort and its forces, which has to be at the forefront of this. Our airlift capability and our money are helping them. We’re working with the United Nations, as well, but the reality is that we’re limited in what we can do.

I doubt, too, that just any use of force will get a solution in Darfur, anymore than using force in a strategy vacuum will work in Iraq or Afghanistan. We have to go back, beyond just the past five or ten years, to understand the historical dynamic really at play there. We have to work with others to get a genuine political solution, even as we deal with the present reality of people being murdered, raped and starved. We have to work on two tracks here, and it’s very difficult.

AI: Let’s talk about trade and money a little bit. I had dinner the other night with Helmut Schmidt, the former West German Chancellor, thanks to the generous invitation of Ambassador Klaus Scharioth. The first thing Schmidt said to us was that he was astonished at how nonchalant we Americans are about our debt. He asked whether we were aware of the unprecedented transfer of wealth that has taken place in recent years. Do we have any idea what it means that foreign governments, as opposed to individuals, are holding our debt? Do we have any idea what it might mean if the dollar stops being the world’s reserve currency? Well, Senator, do we have any idea?

Senator Hagel: No, we have very little idea, and I’ve had this conversation with the Chancellor on many occasions myself. I’ve just finished a book, coming out in March from HarperCollins, called America: Our Next Chapter. I quote Helmut Schmidt on this issue in a chapter devoted to your question.

The Chancellor is exactly right. It’s a huge, challenging problem for us. We don’t understand what’s going on right under our nose. The greatest dispersion in history of what we can call geo-economic wealth is occurring today, and it is changing the dynamics, the power structures, the foundations of everything in the 21st century. The Chancellor’s point about who precisely holds our debt—more than 50 percent of our national debt is in the hands of banks and funds and individuals outside the United States, mostly in Asia. That means that this country requires $2 to $3 billion per day in investment, in buying our Treasury notes and other financial instruments, just to pay the interest on our national debt. We keep driving our country deeper and deeper into debt, and there will be a very significant consequence to that. It will increasingly limit our latitude and range of options to implement virtually any of our policies, including policies essentials to U.S. security.

AI: Last question, and closely related: As you suggest, it isn’t just economic power that has been shifting. We’re about to encounter something in this century that has never before been seen: a fully integrated global system, but one not dominated by Western ideas, institutions and powers. How do you think the United States will react to the advent of a globally integrated but not Western-dominated world? Do we have the character and disposition to do that well?

Senator Hagel: We’re going to have to adapt. We’re not dealing with it today, because so few people have recognized this changing reality. Some have, such as Alan Greenspan, Bob Rubin and Secretary Paulson, but most Americans and their leaders have not. We will deal with it at some point, because we won’t have any choice.

To put a fine point on it, where are all of the world’s largest financial institutions—Citicorp, Merrill-Lynch, Goldman Sachs and others—going to help rescue themselves from this sub-prime mortgage debacle that has spread across the world? They’re going to the Persian Gulf to get capital infusions of anywhere from $5 to $10 billion a trough. There’s nowhere else in the world to go for that kind of money. These Persian Gulf countries, many small in size, are nonetheless sitting on an astounding amount of cash reserves, thanks in part to the very high recent price of oil, which is, in turn, partly a consequence of the Iraq war. In addition to China, Singapore, Taiwan and, to a lesser extent, Japan, the Gulf sheikhdoms are now all sitting on huge currency reserves that are, in essence, IOUs that we’ll have to pay back in one way or another. That just magnifies and adds a dimension to what you’re talking about.

AI: Thank you, Senator; you’ve given our readers plenty to ponder.

Senator Hagel: And thank you for asking me into your pages. I really admire what you’re doing with The American Interest because the things you’re writing about are so important, so critical. I appreciate what you’re doing to educate and inform your readers and the American people.


Appeared in: Volume 03, Number 4 | Published on: March 1, 2008

Senator Chuck Hagel is the Republican Senator from Nebraska.

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