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Hagel Urges Shift in Iraq Policy, End to Partisanship

Interviewee: Chuck Hagel, Distinguished Professor, Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor
May 8, 2007

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Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) was one of only two Senate Republicans to vote in favor of attaching troop-withdrawal timelines to Iraq war funding legislation. President Bush vetoed that measure but Hagel says Bush must acknowledge that the majority of Congress and the American public have lost confidence in his Iraq policy. He calls on the administration to accept conditions in new Iraq war funding legislation that link U.S. engagement to Iraqi political reforms. Hagel also urges an end to the politicking surrounding discussion of Iraq. “We have to sand down the sharp partisan edges that have now really dominated much of this debate,” he says.

Senator, there’s now a great deal of attention focusing on September as a date for this temporary funding legislation to perhaps come to a head. What kind of legislation could you support?

We are working right now to craft a compromise conference report that will receive enough House and Senate members’ votes and a report that the president will sign. I’ve said I think we should take all the extra [non-military] money out and focus just on the money the president asked for. And then there needs to be some conditional language in the report. I think you’ll probably see the specific dates taken out of there. I want to see different language options, and that’s the way it works up here. It’s hour to hour. And in the end, I have confidence that we will find a resolution to this that will allow the president to get the funds, and at the same time, there will be some new conditions, at least some general parameters for America’s continued involvement in Iraq.

So parameters that go beyond what is seen now as open-ended conditions about what the United States would like to see the Iraqi government do. You just visited Iraq. Could you describe your impressions of how the Iraqi officials are dealing with the various problems there?

The situation in Iraq is complicated, and it is getting worse all the time. Until there is a political reconciliation by the Iraqi government—between the Sunnis, the Shiites, and the Kurds—there will not be a resolution. As Gen. [David] Petraeus, Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates, and our ambassadors have all said, there will be no military solution for Iraq. There must be a political accommodation made by the Shiites and Sunnis principally to find common ground where they can form a consensus government that will address the large issues and challenges that face Iraq. The military can’t do that. We can’t impose anything. [Any breakthrough] will come as a result of a political accommodation, bringing some reconciliation. How that might come about? What kind of a government might you see in Iraq? I don’t know. But that’s up to the Iraqis.

From your position on the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees, and your understanding of what’s going on in Iraq, what proportion of the violence is sectarian as opposed to these dramatic al-Qaeda attacks on marketplaces, not only in Baghdad but in Ramadi and other towns?

Well, first of all, those are not all al-Qaeda attacks. We’re not sure. Many of those are Sunni extremists. Some are al-Qaeda. You have militia on militia. There are terrorists in Iraq. Al-Qaeda is in Iraq. But as the National Intelligence Estimate said, this is a violent, sectarian war complicated further by an intra-sectarian war. So it’s not just Sunnis killing Shiites, but it’s Shiites killing Shiites. And that’s the predominant part of why we’re seeing the violence in Iraq. The extremists, the terrorists, and al-Qaeda are using this violence. But this violence is being driven through a sectarian problem that needs to get resolved. Only through a political resolution will this become in any way a functioning government that gives the country and the people of Iraq any kind of a future.

In Congress you’ve indicated this has become more of a political debate than it should be. But by the same token, some say the Democrats’ gains in the 2006 midterm elections have galvanized Congress to debate these issues that were ignored. How do you see the way this is now unfolding?

I don’t think we’ve made really any progress at all here trying to bring [about] some consensus in the Congress, and within the administration, coming together to find a responsible way out of this for the United States. We have to sand down the sharp partisan edges that have now really dominated much of this debate. This should be a debate about the interests of our country. This should be a debate about the future of foreign policy of America, about the interests of the Middle East, and the future of Iraq. That’s where the debate should reside, not a partisan debate.

What the American people want us to do now, their elected members of Congress, is not to play politics with it, [but] to fix it. The administration has to come a ways here too. The people of this country, the majority of the Congress, have lost confidence in the policy of this president in Iraq. That policy needs to change. It needs to shift. This president must understand that. He should work with the Congress. I mentioned Baker-Hamilton. That was an opportunity the president had to find a new bipartisan consensus, a new center of gravity for a policy in Iraq going forward. They chose not to do that. I’m sorry they did. But nonetheless they did. But we should try to extract the sharp partisanship out of this debate as much as we can.

You have deferred a decision on running for any office in ’08 as of yet. What is your timeline at this point?

I’ll make a decision. I have to make a decision in the next few months, and that’s the timeline I gave, and that’s the timeline I’ll stick to.

Did the two debates [Democratic and Republican] give you any new thoughts?

I have to tell you I didn’t see either debate. Those are all kind of silly right now. The fact is, you’re in April and May, these guys can’t develop any policies. They can’t take serious questions. It’s way too early. There’s so much going to happen here. If they want to do that, that’s up to them. But I think it’s a little silly.

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