10 Questions: Chuck Hagel And The Surge

(AP Photo/Dennis Cook)
Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb) has caused a small firestorm because of his vocal opposition to President Bush's proposed troop surge in Iraq. No less a figure than Vice President Dick Cheney has criticized Hagel, saying: "Let's say I believe firmly in Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment: Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican," Cheney said. "But it's very hard sometimes to adhere to that where Chuck Hagel is involved."

For his part, Hagel has made no secret of his disenchantment with the GOP. Not long ago, he told Bob Schieffer on "Face the Nation": "The party that I first voted for on top of a tank in Mekong Delta 1968 is not the party I see today."

Who wouldn't want to ask 10 Questions of that kind of a firebrand?

We decided to lob some questions at him about the war and his presidential ambitions. Here's what he lobbed back.

1.Senator Hagel, we all know that you're opposed to the President's policy which is to surge troops in Iraq. Is there anything you're for that could lead to success or is it about managing failure?

I am for many things, starting with the fact that we have to recognize the realities of the current situation in Iraq and the Middle East. And I don't believe that continuing a significant military escalation in Iraq is the wise course of action to take because I don't think that, ultimately, will change the future for Iraq.

In fact, I think it will have just the opposite effect. We cannot just pull out. The resolution that I co-authored is not cut and run. It is not withdrawal. It is not cut off funds. We talk in that resolution about a redeployment of troops--American troops where we think we can more effectively use our troops--putting them out on the border areas where we can help assure the territorial integrity of Iraq.

I think it is absolutely wrong tactically, militarily, strategically, and morally to put American troops in the middle of a sectarian—-an intrasectarian war--in Baghdad. That is a waste of our troops. It's a waste of our treasure. We should be focused on new diplomatic and strategic initiatives just as the Baker-Hamilton commission report suggested.

That is, engaging Syria and Iran. We had the Secretary of State before the committee [Thursday] morning talking about the humanitarian disaster that is unfolding. Already two million Iraqis have left the country. A third of their doctors have left the country. It's gonna get far worse.

And that means we're gonna have to engage, if for no other reason, for example, Syria and Iran. But the outcome in Iraq is going to be determined by the Iraqis, not the Americans. The Iraqis are the ones who are gonna have to come together with a political resolution based on some political accommodation and agreements. That is the only future way out for Iraq. And that's where we should be focusing our attention.

2. What do you say to critics who argue that a resolution opposing the policy--which is happening anyway--will do nothing but embolden the enemy?

Well, I don't agree with that. I think the enemy is rather emboldened right now. If you need further evidence of that, they've downed five helicopters in the last three weeks. They have killed more than 3,100 Americans and wounded almost 25,000. I think that's a rather significant indication that the enemy is emboldened right now.

That's nonsense. The fact is that just as the national intelligence estimate that came out on Friday--it is the product of the 16 intelligence agencies in our intelligence community saying, "This is a civil war. This is a sectarian war." It's even worse and more complicated than that. It's an intrasectarian war. And so debating a resolution or the future course of America's involvement in Iraq doesn't weaken America. It strengthens America. We have lost the confidence--the President of the United States has lost the confidence of the American people in his policy on Iraq. The Congress has a constitutional as well as a moral responsibility to be part of this. Is your option just to continue to poor more American blood and treasure into Iraq? I don't support that.

I think there are a lot of people who don't. Obviously the American people don't. And so you don't weaken a democracy by a debate in front of the world. You strengthen a democracy. Who in the world does not know that there is a divide in America right now having nothing to do with the Congress. The American people are divided.

3. How would you have felt as a young soldier in Vietnam if the Senate opposed the mission you were risking your life to carry out?

I was in Vietnam in 1968 with my brother. And we were there during the worst year of the war. I would have welcomed the Congress to have the courage to step up and ask the tough questions of President Johnson and Mr. MacNamara and Westmoreland and others who were making policy on the war. I would have welcomed the Congress in 1968 to step into this and say, "What are we doing? Where is this going? What is the ultimate objective of continuing to feed young Americans into this machine?"

That would not have hurt my morale. It would have made a rather significant difference in the morale, I think, of all of us if we knew that Congress was paying attention. So-- that's just part of our job. I think General Pace said that yesterday. Secretary Gates said that yesterday.

4.Why do you think you were the only Republican in favor of the Biden Resolution [to strongly oppose the surge]? Have you left your party in some sense on foreign policy?

I have always been guided based on what I think is right for my country--not what I think is right, first, for the Republican Party. I have taken an oath to the Constitution, like all my colleagues when we come here. I don't take an oath to the Republican Party or to my president. I work within the framework of a party because philosophically I'm more in tune with the Republican Party than the Democratic Party.

There is not a Republican Senator here that does not have a voting record on specific issues of voting against their own party. I mean, every Republican senator has that. So because I don't agree with this president on his policy in Iraq that doesn't mean I've left my party or my party's left me. Not at all. This is a very specific thing.

And I would further say, Congressional Quarterly ranked the 100 Senators last year on support of the President's policies in the Congress. And the senior senator from Nebraska was number one. Number one of the senators supporting the President's policies over the last year. So I think it's a rather significant stretch to say somehow I'm outside the framework.

5. What is your basic foreign policy philosophy? I mean, do you believe we should promote democracy? Do you believe we should act only in our interests or also sometimes for humanitarian reasons?

All of the above. The foreign policy of any country will always be dictated, as it should be, by its own interests. Every nation responds in its own self interests. That's good. That's predictable. There's continuity to that. Where you run into trouble is when you find unpredictability in how nations will respond. Unpredictability leads to miscalculation.

And that leads to conflict and war. All nations are predicated on the basis of their national interests. That's where you start. Second, that must be done with allies. And that must be done working through institutions and structures and organizations like NATO and like the UN. Bringing people to your side because of the power of your purpose, not because of the purpose of your power.

That's why we have been successful since World War II in the world. People have generally had some confidence and trust in our purpose. Not that they have necessarily first feared our military or envied our economy but it's been our purpose because we have elevated ourselves in a way that many people think is good and right.

Our foreign policy should reflect who we are as Americans. The humanitarian piece of that is very, very important. And we've always done that, by the way. We've made our mistakes, absolutely. We're imperfect, absolutely. But the humanitarian piece is part of it. Democracy is part of it but only within the realm of the framework of what's doable.

We can not impose democracies on countries. We can't impose our will or our way of life or our standards or values on countries. And I think there's where we've gotten in trouble the last few years. We have tried to impose a democracy on a country that did not ask for that, did not ask for our help in that, because we have as Americans a tendency to be arrogant and not read history and not understand other interests in the world.

We get ourselves in trouble. Last time we got ourselves in this much trouble was Vietnam because we didn't understand the people, the culture, the ethnic dynamic. And when you do that you further isolate yourself from the world. A country in especially the 21st century must do everything it can not to isolate itself in the world. Because the great challenges of this century are all global and they will require relationships and strong alliances.

6. You were a co-chair of of John McCain's campaign back in 2000. Why haven't you supported Senator McCain today the way you did then?

Well, first I may-- be a candidate for president myself. It'd be difficult for me to support John McCain and then a month later declare my own candidacy. I'm having so much fun.

7.Do you think the two of you learned different lessons from Vietnam?

Well, we're all products of our own experiences, of course. And I have never assigned any motives or impugned a colleague's motives or try to second guess why a colleague believes or acts or votes or thinks the way he does. I can only answer for myself. Certainly my experience in Vietnam was a conditioning factor. But it wasn't the only one.

I'm made up of a lot more pieces of experience than 12 months in Vietnam in 1968 as, as John is. And it's a whole range of experiences. And you come to an issue and you work through an issue and come to conclusions and judgments and a final position based on that range of experiences.

8.How would you rate the job George W. Bush has done as president?

Oh, I don't get into that. I'll let history decide that.

9. Are you going to run for president?

I'll let you know.

10. You've said you're not planning to run as an Independent but why not give a kind of Shermanesque answer to reassure Republicans that if Independents nominated you wouldn't run, and if Independents elected you you wouldn't serve?

(LAUGHTER) Well, first I'm not a candidate. Second, I think we are living in one of these great historic times of transformation and redefinition in American politics. Politics only reflects society and what's going on in the world.

What the world is gonna look like in six months, 12 months--when we get into the heat of primaries here, caucuses a year from now, I can't predict. I don't know what the world looks like. I don't know what America will be looking for in a leader. So to cut off any options now or to make bold Shermanesque statements now about whatever I don't think-- makes any sense.