Senator Chuck Hagel discusses his experiences in the army and the U.S. Senate, and gives his opinion about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
This meeting is part of the HBO History Makers series.
JACOB WEISBERG: (In progress.) The "History Makers" series is sponsored by HBO. And I want to thank Richard Pepler (ph) -- Plepler and HBO for their generous support of the series. If you haven't already, please turn off -- completely turn off all of your cell phones, BlackBerrys. It's for us so it doesn't interfere with the sound system. And today's meeting is on the record.
So I'll get us started. Senator, you grew up in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. A small town?
CHUCK HAGEL: Yes.
WEISBERG: Give us a sense, if you will, about how growing up in a place like that shaped your outlook in -- on international affairs. It's not -- it's not a given that someone who grows up in that part of the world ends up with an internationalist outlook and ends up being engaged the way you are in the rest of the world.
HAGEL: Well, you looked for the quickest, most expedient way out -- (laughter) -- and as far away as you could get. I think we all are, to a great extent, each of us as we grow up, captive to our own interests, our own ways of retreating into books. And I think that was just an interest I had, but I suspect what fostered that as much as anything -- my father was a veteran of World War II and was in the South Pacific for two and a half, almost three years. My grandfather was a veteran of World War I.
And in little towns in western Nebraska, not unlike little towns all over America, in those days when you're growing up in the '50s, the Legion club, the VFW, the veterans organizations were really the center of the universe for most communities. And the patriotism in the '50s up until Vietnam -- and that started to change everything -- was a given. It was part of your life. It was part of the community. It was part of your expectations.
And that then led you to -- on to new plateaus of thinking about the world. My dad would talk about South Pacific, the Philippines, New Guinea and Guadalcanal, Australia, China. It was fascinating to me. And so I think that probably precipitated a lot of it. And then his friends were all veterans in those days; and, you know, we have, I'm sure, World War II veterans here. Everybody served. And so it was not a select group in society that either served or didn't serve. Most people had something to do with World War II and most men served or contributed in some way. And I think that was probably what did it more than anything else.
WEISBERG: So it was a given in your family that you would volunteer and go to Vietnam? I mean, would that have just been assumed when you were -- I know your father passed away before that happened, but --
HAGEL: Well, I did volunteer to go to Vietnam, as did my brother Tom, who graduated from high school when I had just arrived at Fort Bliss, Texas, for basic training. And three days later, he was on a bus to Omaha, and then a train to Fort Bliss. He volunteered for the draft, and he was going to be an Army cook for his tour, but I don't know if it was that experience thinking about boiling lamb for two years or a more exciting dimension of your military career, fighting in a war. But there was an expectation to that.
I was going to Germany. I was in the first graduating class of -- then it was the -- considered the most secretive new weapon the United States had. In fact, it was the first shoulder-fired heat-seeking missile called the Redeye missile gun. Some of you may remember that. Dick McCormick (sp) and others who were in and out of Vietnam remember this. That was not used in Vietnam. The reason it was -- it was invented, it was developed was to bring down low-flying Soviet aircraft that would come across Europe if the Soviets would attack.
And so I was in the first graduating class, and I was chosen to demonstrate the effectiveness and the certainty of Redeye missile gun never missing its target. President Johnson came to White Sands Missile Range. And there were 10 of us, and I missed the target. (Laughter.) We had all the generals -- and I go, oh, my God -- (inaudible) -- but I hit it the second time.
WEISBERG: Yeah. the Stinger was perfected after that.
HAGEL: By then -- (chuckles) -- yeah, sure. But by then in real life, Berlin would be gone, because I missed the first -- (laughter) -- that first fleet of Soviet MiGs that got through.
But I think there was an expectation, as you say, that that's just the way you did it. And I thought -- I remember when I went to -- on my orders going into Fort Dix, New Jersey, to go to Germany, I (said ?) this just isn't right. There's a war on; you go to war. My dad did, my grandfather did and my dad's friends did. That's kind of the expected thing.
WEISBERG: Yeah. Now, I've read, I think, several times this amazing story about how you and your brother Tom ended up serving in the same unit and both saved each other's lives in Vietnam. I mean, it would be an incredible movie. I'm amazed no one's -- no one's tried to -- tried to do a version of it.
But as I understand it, you and your brother came away from the experience of Vietnam with very different views of the war. Can you talk a little bit about that, what you took away from Vietnam and what he took away from Vietnam?
HAGEL: Well, actually, in retrospect, his views are a lot closer to, I think, how history has played out. My views have changed, quite frankly, over the years, much closer to my brother Tom's. But to answer your question, he and I did see it differently, partly -- our political philosophies early on were quite different. He was a liberal Democrat, I was a conservative Republican.
And I suppose age does this to you. You're supposed to get wiser -- I don't know about smarter, but wiser. But there's a tolerance that sets in, too, I think. You become, hopefully, a little more thoughtful. But I've certainly drifted far closer to his point of view on Vietnam than he did mine.
But initially, he was very opposed to Vietnam. I was -- I was not, because I thought the purpose was right, and I thought there was more of a regional geopolitical interest and that's why our presidents and those in charge of our national security and foreign policy had chosen to make a stand in Vietnam. I was very much aware of what Eisenhower had said, and in fact had read -- actually read his speech in 1961, his last speech, when I was in high school. And I understand it a lot better today. But nonetheless, I was impressed with it, and I think everybody knows where Eisenhower was on never get bogged down with great land armies in Asia and other areas.
But I somehow just went over the top of that and thought that -- partly the trust and confidence I had in our leadership and our government, because I thought that too was part of how you're brought up; you trust your government to a certain extent. And they're smart people. And if they believe that this is clearly in the national interest of your country, then you have to accept some of that.
Over the years now, we know through the NPR tapes that were released with Johnson's confidential phone conversations with Russell Long and with Russell, that that's -- it was a little more complicated. But we did have different and clearly opposite views, almost, on Vietnam. And I was always interested in -- it's easy for me to be there, because I actually believed to some extent. I mean, I saw the waste. I saw the folly. I saw, you take a mountain, you take a village, and you take great casualties and then you pull out 48 hours later. You say, well, this really wasn't -- our leaders -- military leaders -- as strategically important as we thought.
So you clear out and you think, as a 19, 20, 21-year-old -- I was one of the older kids there, because I went in as a private and so did Tom. At some point it starts to dawn on you you've just sacrificed all these young people. So if it's strategically that important, why did you make that sacrifice? But even more to the point, then why did you pull out and why did you just walk away? And I think a lot of that is being applied -- not that we want to get into the present-day things in Afghanistan -- a lot of the same questions are being asked and so on.
But we both had a relationship as brothers that was far more important than our points of view on the war. And his role and his involvement and his time there, I think, was far more difficult than mine simply because he didn't believe that what was going on was really in the best interest of our country. But he felt that he should be there because he could help others and that was his duty.
WEISBERG: Yeah. Now I don't know how much your view on Vietnam had evolved by the time you entered the Senate in '96, but one of the interesting dynamics I remember from that period is this group of senators who were Vietnam veterans: John Kerry, Bob Kerrey, John McCain. Who else? Chuck Robb and Max Cleland --
HAGEL: Max Cleland.
WEISBERG: -- and you know, there was a lot interest in you as a group and how Vietnam shaped your outlook on other interventions in particular, but on foreign affairs generally. Did that -- was there anything that characterized that group in terms of a common view? Or was it just that you had this bond around the shared experience of having served in the -- in the military during Vietnam?
HAGEL: Well, there was one clear connecting rod and one very clear understanding and bond, and that was the value of human life, and the value and the premium you put on the human sacrifice and the importance of -- and should be the priority of the individual that you asked to go fight and die. Is that purpose clear enough? Is that purpose important enough?
I've always thought -- and I think the other five Vietnam veteran senators that you mentioned had the same feeling -- that we too often in Washington, far too cavalierly and glibly, skate over that human dimension: Well, so what? People die in war, so what?
I don't mean to be that crass about it, but I think there's very little focus on human consequences when you ask people to go fight and die and what it does to their families and the wounded, and how it changes people's lives. We are so captive to policy and to theory, and to kind of a universe of not inhuman, but lack of human connection to war. That's the bond that we had.
We all did -- regardless of party and philosophy and how we voted -- all did have that one bond that we were connected to the humanness and the costs of war. I don't think there was anybody in the six -- and I can't speak for any of them -- when I first got to the Senate, because Max Cleland came to the Senate -- was elected to replace Sam Nunn the same year I was elected -- I don't think there was anyone of the six, certainly not me, that was a pacifist -- that we didn't need to have a military or under no circumstances would you go to war. I don't think that was the case at all.
But I've always thought those kind of experiences, like any experience for any of us in our lives, it gives you a clarity that other people don't always have, and I always tried to apply that experience to every decision I made on the Foreign Relations Committee regarding Iraq, Afghanistan, and the questions I used to ask were obviously predicated on that experience.
Didn't mean I'm right, didn't mean I had all the answers, but that's a pretty unique bond in an -- in a world where you've lost a lot of that because -- the last point I make on this -- the Congress of the United States -- and you all know these numbers and you know the numbers -- up until about 20 years ago was predominantly fielded by veterans. And you look at the percentages today in the Congress who are veterans, I mean, there down into the teens. And now, that doesn't mean it's right or wrong; that doesn't mean that veterans are smarter or wiser; that's not my point. But it does shift the realities of perspective and the realities of policymaking.
And what I often say to people about politics -- and I think that this is somewhat of an example -- politics just reflects society. So you have a society of 310 million Americans today. The percentage of that society that are veterans is probably as small as we've had -- I'm sure it is -- certainly since World War II.
WEISBERG: Yeah. So you had a significant break with your Republican colleagues and with the Bush administration when you opposed the decision to go to war in Iraq, before it was happening. Now, I know you went -- you voted for the first resolution, but you gave quite a stirring speech that was strong, contained a lot of the strongest arguments against going to war, and that changed the party's view of you and presumably your view of a lot of your colleagues in the party.
What was -- have you just described in talking about your -- the appreciation you had as a combat veteran for the soldier's perspective, the sometimes callous attitude toward the lives of other people who are going to do the fighting -- have you just described the reasons behind that break? Or was there a lot more to it around the Bush administration and the way it approached the issue?
HAGEL: Well, certainly what I've just described over the last few minutes were all elements --
HAGEL: -- of that line of questioning and concern and doubt. But it was more than that because I don't think you can -- I've always thought, if you're a United States Senator, you have a -- you have a big job of thinking through these things and then ultimately making some decision on how you're going to vote. And there is not a more critical element of representative government for each of us who had the privilege of serving in those capacities than making a decision on war -- on whether you send your men and women to war and whether you get a country into war.
As I often used to say -- and we found out in Vietnam, we're finding out in Iraq, but every war -- easy to get into these wars, but pretty damn hard to get out of them, because you've got always the reasons why you can't leave: can't leave because all the dominos will fall in Southeast Asia or whatever it is.
Now, that said, go back -- steer back to your question. It wasn't just that. It was -- it was a lot of -- at least what I thought -- of unanswered questions. Where are we going here? What is the endgame here? On the surge, I remember asking -- I was opposed to the surge -- well, of course, if you flood any zone, any location in the world with superior American military -- and there's no, obviously, country in the world who can stand up to the superiority of our force. If you flood that zone with a superior American firepower, of course you're going to have your -- whatever your victory is, however you define that.
But I never thought Iraq, for example, was well thought-out. No one could ever take me through then what happens, then what happens, then what happens. I go back to the beginning of the first 12 months, and Jamie (sp) was at CIA, and there's some other people in the room who know something about this, were there at the time. I used to ask the questions of the witnesses that would come up about every dimension of this. And we had on record Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld, Natsios, who was USAID -- every one of the senior members. They would say things like -- and this is all on the record -- we'll have our troops out of Iraq by Christmas. This was the year we invaded. Certainly no more than 12 months.
These were generals -- four-star generals -- Tommy Franks, others. Natsios and Wolfowitz testified that the war would not cost the United States one penny. (Laughter.) So much oil.
They actually said this. This isn't my interpretation; this is all on the record. I never bought that. It was -- it was, to me, so much more complicated because I'd been in a war that was complicated. I'd seen the graft, I'd seen the corruption, I'd seen the death, I'd seen the misunderstandings, I'd seen the lack of clear policymaking that is just inherent in something like this. Have -- I used to say, have you thought this through? Is this going to be a classic 21st century nation building? Are we subject to nation -- and mission creep here? So it wasn't just my own emotional human pieces.
One last point I want to make on how you opened the question. I never let any of this get personal, and I've never believed that that's a smart way to handle anything. I had strong disagreements with the Bush administration -- individuals in the Bush administration and with some of my colleagues. But I never, ever got personal or let that get personal, and I was disappointed through some of that because some did let it get personal. And I don't mind you getting beat up on political issues or how you voted or questioning anything, but when they question personal motives and they -- then you get into all the entertainment like Rush Limbaugh and so on, where you get to the RINO kind of thing.
I've always kind of been amused by that because it's kind of like the Moral Majority. Well, who certifies you -- who certifies you as more moral than me? Did the pope do that for you or did the president? How did that happen? And it's the same thing on policy. Why are you right and I'm wrong? I understand it's your point of view, but why are you defining me as not a Republican?
I once said that I've never believed, nor have I ever seen anything in our short history, where wars are partisan issues: that all Republicans should take a role and all Democrats will take a position, so if you're a Republican, this is your position on war. I often would say, at least in my experience, that Democrats fight and die in wars. Republicans fight and die in wars. Independents do, communists do, atheists do. So I think it's a pretty difficult classification.
Now, the reason I mention that is because it is connected, I think, to a lot of the bullying and the bludgeoning and you hold the line and support the president. And the other thing I used to say, you know, I can only do what I think is right in the capacity of why I wanted the job, how I took the job, and what I think the responsibilities of the job are. It was very clear to me. I was never conflicted.
I took an oath of office, as we all do, to the Constitution of the United States. I didn't take an oath of office to a president or to a CIA director or secretary of defense, or sure as hell not to my party. I always made a decision based on what I thought was right for the country, whether that was right or wrong. But that's the way we did it.
WEISBERG: When you look back at these issues in historical terms, though, there is a irreduceable personal component to it because these weren't just decisions, they were decisions made by individuals. And the kind of people they were colored the way they made the decision, not just the way the decision came out. And you had to deal with Rumsfeld and Cheney and Bush.
What was -- give some sense of what it was like to be a Republican who opposed the most important foreign policy of that administration. Did you find -- did anybody listen to you in the administration? Did you try to communicate what you thought? Did you think you could modify the course of events by talking to, say, Rumsfeld or Cheney or the president?
HAGEL: I did talk with the president on more than one occasion. It wasn't often, but I talked to him personally, privately about it. And I always had a very good personal relationship with President Bush. What a lot of my Republican friends forget is it was Chuck Hagel who was the one who was out front helping the president on his immigration reform when his own party walked away from him.
I had him in Omaha for the first kick-off of the immigration reform. And in fact it was my bill. It was the only bill that's passed in the Congress, a real immigration reform bill, in 2004-2005. We got 65 votes on it. I was the one helping President Bush -- there weren't any other Republicans stepping up. I was the one helping him with his Social Security reform. I had him in Omaha to kick that off. A lot of things that President Bush and I did together that somehow get disregarded, but I understand that.
So I never had a personal issue with President Bush. And we always got along fine and he was always very gracious to me. The vice president, being --
WEISBERG: He was not so gracious to you?
HAGEL: Well, he, being a temperate man -- and I'll let history decide on that -- but he had his own approach, had his own intelligence operation. He had his own little of everything. (Laughter.) So I didn't ever spend a lot of time knocking on that door. Maybe I should have. He didn't spend a lot of time reaching out to me.
Rumsfeld, I always got along with very well. I had known Rumsfeld for a long time. I got to know him back in 1971 when I went to work for a congressman, I was a chief of staff for a congressman in the early '70s, and always had a good relationship with him and still do. I, as he knows, disagreed with him. I disagreed with Paul Wolfowitz, and I still have a good relationship with Wolfowitz.
I didn't think that they understood what they were doing. I didn't think that they had thought anything through. It was a fundamental difference in our approach to a lot of things. You were -- those were the three that you mentioned.
I always got along very well with all the generals. I disagreed with a lot of them, but I always put the generals in a little different category because the way it's supposed to work -- but I'm not sure it's really worked out this way in the last 20 years, I think the military has become far more politically influential, setting policy, in our country than is healthy for democracy.
I think the military have been in a very difficult spot. And I'll give you an example. During the Bush years -- the Bush years, in trying to sell and continue to sell Iraq -- they would bring up as witnesses before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, other committees, generals as their witnesses, which in fact was really unprecedented.
And the reason they did that, of course, was very smart. Who was going to pick on the poor general, because in those days, not very long ago -- and everybody knows this -- the military was the most trusted, the most admired institution in America for many years. And they're still very high. They've lost some of it. But considering other institutions, and relevant to other institutions, the military is still stratospheric.
But the Bush people knew in a very clever way that using the generals out front to respond to policy issues was a very effective way to deal with this.
WEISBERG: As time went on it certainly felt, watching from the outside, that there was not just a personal dimension to your argument with them, but a kind of anguished one. I mean, I remember around the surge when your opposition was so strong -- stronger in a way, as I remember it, than your opposition to the war originally -- and I remember there was talk about you leaving the party, becoming an independent, running for president as an independent. I mean, was that -- what was that moment like for you?
HAGEL: That was -- it was not a political moment for me. I mean, I know you are living in a world, as we do in politics, where your motives, your actions, your words are often ascribed to less-than-noble purpose. And you just accept that in this business. As I once said, which became a famous line, to my colleagues in the Foreign Relations Committee, if you're looking for a safe job, go sell shoes -- which I heard from every -- (laughter) -- shoe salesman, "It's not an easy job, Senator."
But I actually used to sell shoes. So I knew it was not an easy job. But my point was, you know, we're here to make the tough choices and the tough decisions. If you don't want to do that, get out of it.
HAGEL: But back to your point, I could never -- and I think most elected officials are this way -- I could never worry about motives being assigned to me. I mean, I was aware of it, you have to be aware of it. But you do what you do because you believe in what you're saying. It doesn't mean that you're going to be right, by the way. But there's something --
WEISBERG: But -- yeah. Yeah.
HAGEL: -- that has to be deep enough in you to make you say these things.
Now just, like, one quick point on the surge. On that point, I just didn't think we knew what we were doing well enough to follow through at the cost of -- great sacrifice of so many of those young people's lives. Because this is the question I ask -- I asked the president this one day. In the end, I mentioned the other day -- or not the other day, just a few minutes ago -- of course a surge or applying superior American military power is going to win the day that day, for that moment, or that month, as long as you keep that military power there. But you can't sustain it. So then what happens?
What happens in Iraq? For example, I used to ask the question, who governs? How do they govern? How will they be chosen? Who supports them? I used to say, when will then the government decide on dealing with these political issues?
Because in the end, all of these issues have to be resolved politically. Gates talked about it the other day. The issues have to be resolved through some political mechanism, and that's the only it can be done.
So what has been done in Iraq, for example -- a question I used to ask -- with the Kurds? Nothing. What about a hydrocarbon law? Nothing. What about the Sunni-Shia issue? Nothing. You've essentially got a dictator there today in Maliki who still controls everything. He has the defense portfolio; he has the interior portfolio. I actually asked those questions during the debate on the surge, and I never got any answers.
Those are the kind of things that drove me on the sacrifice, going back to the first set of questions about the humanist and the value of human life. What are we asking these kids to sacrifice for? In the end, what do you have? In the end, can you tell me -- I used to ask Petraeus this -- can you explain to me what the political mechanism is that then brings Iraq back together in some way?
And I know there are no good guarantees. But if you're willing to sacrifice that many young people, and our prestige, and all that goes with it, not counting the money and the force structure strain, then you better have a pretty damn clear answer as to what comes out of the other end. And I didn't believe they ever had any clear answers.
WEISBERG: With the benefit of hindsight, knowing what happened, would you have a different view of the surge? Or do you feel that's not what tipped the balance in Iraq?
HAGEL: Well, when you say tip the balance, what do you mean? Tip the balance from all-out civil war? Because the Bush administration -- it took them a long time before they even acknowledged it was a civil war. I may have been the first person to use that terminology. And I remember I was beaten down by -- well, (said ?) there's a civil war? No civil war. Well, there was a civil war. Finally, they had to acknowledge it.
But I think Iraq is far from having any kind of certainty how that's going to end up. I mean, just examine for a moment. We've still got about 50,000 troops there. The Bush administration -- they are the ones that negotiated the status of forces agreement to have all our troops out by the end of this year. Well, if we have been even moderately successful in eight years, with now over 4,500 deaths and tens of thousands of wounded, and we're not sure exactly how much money, it's a trillion or more, and we're still pouring money, and there's still this largest embassy in the world, still the biggest embassy staff in the world -- so why are we even discussing the possibility of leaving troops?
So if this has been so successful, and the surge was so successful, and what Maliki is doing now, and we're still losing troops there, dead, killed -- that's my point about (it ?). I think we're a long way from having any understanding of how this is going to play out.
WEISBERG: I have lots more I could ask you. But at this point, let's open the floor to our members for questions. If you have a question, please tell us who you are and stand up and speak clearly. But let me remind you that we're here to talk about the past, not the future. (Laughter.)
QUESTIONER: Donald Gregg. Nice to see you, Senator.
HAGEL: Ambassador, nice to see you again.
QUESTIONER: I wonder about the kind of advice that our generals always give the presidents in the -- in the crunch. And by what I -- my way of thinking, one of the most effective pieces of advice a president ever had was by a lieutenant-general Sweeney during the Cuban missile crisis, when he said, President Kennedy, I cannot guarantee that I will get all those Soviet missiles. And that tipped Kennedy to go against the rabid advice from Curtis LeMay and take the other way.
What kind of advice do you think General Petraeus is going to be capable of offering? I'm -- only met him once, and I said to him, General, I was looking for you in Vietnam, but I couldn't find you. And he said, Jesus Christ, I was just in high school. (Laughter.) And I said, well, I was looking for somebody who seemed to understand what we were trying to do, and there wasn't anybody there who did.
How do you think he will do when he has to give the president the tough advice on Af-Pak?
WEISBERG: And give us the historical perspective by telling us -- (laughter) -- what it was like dealing with General Petraeus when you were in the Senate?
HAGEL: Well, General Petraeus is, in my opinion, is one of the smartest, most agile military commanders we've ever had. If you're referring to what advice do I think he's going to give the president, or has he given the president, regarding the next decision the president is going to make about Afghanistan, I suspect it will be, as he has done in the past in both Iraq and Afghanistan, a very minimalist approach to extraction.
I find it interesting -- and again, my point earlier about generals and people in the military and whose lives are devoted to their country in a selfless way in the military, subservient to the civilian -- we've got to understand their thinking and role. It doesn't it's good, bad or anything, but I don't know in history -- it's been pretty rare when a general has said to the commander in chief, I can accomplish some mission with fewer troops. Or, I need less, why don't you give me less. There may be examples of that; I don't think there are many.
And so I would be quite surprised if General Petraeus says to President Obama, I think, to start unwinding this -- because we know it's politically not sustainable, and it isn't sustainable. I mean, I think you can start picking the strands of NATO and Gates' speech and all the different elements that are flooding into this. This is not a sustainable effort.
And you saw the vote in the House of Representatives about three weeks ago, how close that was. 29 Republicans voted to start getting out, and there will be more. I talked to some of them; they called me -- came to see me, some of them. Be another 25 on that next vote, and they'll pass it to next time.
But back to your question. I'd be surprised if he asked for more than 5,000 taken out of there. And I think the signs have been pretty clear. I mean, Secretary Gates has been out essentially announcing this around the world, that you can't really start taking out any significant numbers of troops. It's too early.
But what I find and always found very interesting about the mentality of military men and women -- and if I was a general, I'm sure I'd be right where they are -- in their reports to Congress, the last two and three years, the progress reports, however way you want to frame them, on Afghanistan, the military's reports and analysis differs considerably from the intelligence community's. Intelligence community's analysis has been not near as positive and rosy, which adds to another dimension of this Petraeus going over to head up CIA, which is going to be interesting.
But let's stay with your question. But at the end of every one of those reports, at the end of every testimony by a general on the progress, they end with the same two words: reversible and fragile. I've been hearing reversible and fragile for years in Iraq and Afghanistan. Great, glowing, making progress, one, two, three, four, five, but we have to remember, it's fragile and reversible, so therefore you can't take those troops out too soon.
And the other exit sign, exit door, is conditions on the ground. Well, if you're a general, when will conditions on the ground put you in a position to say, oh, yeah, I think we're in pretty good shape, we can take 30,000 -- certainly, we take the surge number out.
And you know, what's also interesting about this too is this whole -- this squishy left-wing antiwar president of ours, President Obama. Do you know how many troops were in Afghanistan when he took office versus how many are in Afghanistan now? He's more than doubled, far more than doubled those troops.
Now, what does that say? You draw your own conclusion on that point, but I doubt if Petraeus is going to ask for a lot of troops coming out of that.
WEISBERG: Yeah, the gentleman in the first row here.
And you're next.
QUESTIONER: I'm Bob Lifton. Senator, staying with the same general topic, you adumbrated to Eisenhower's remarks and talked about his remarks about the military-industrial complex and being beware of them. We're now facing -- I'm not going to go forward -- we're now facing an issue of budget cuts in the military. Now -- and based on your experience with the Congress, which has forced the military to expend money in certain areas because it was to their interest, and based on your experience with the -- with the whole military-industrial complex, what do you think the approach should be to reducing military expenditures in this country?
HAGEL: Well, I think the answer to that is, without getting ourselves too far ahead and getting into the depths of this, because this could be hours to answer that question, I'd say this: We have not had any real strategic thinking in this country for years and years and years -- strategic thinking in what are our interests.
Is Libya in our interest? I mean, we stumbled into that. Now whether you agree or disagree or whatever, but I mean, can anyone in this room tell me that we cogently thought through Libya?
Here's my point, to answer your question: What are our strategic interests? Let's start with that. Let's then look at the strategic dynamics and reorientation of our military and our force structure application. We're in about 140 countries where we have military soldiers, now bigger, smaller, so on. Do we still need to have 30,000 troops in South Korea? Maybe we do. Have we thought about that?
We have -- we have ricocheted from crisis to crisis. And our thinking has never been clear strategically. We don't think regionally.
I mean, I used to say in the committees on Iraq, I said, Iraq is -- this is not about Iraq. It's about the whole region. The Palestinian-Israeli issue is right up there in there. Iran -- you can't take Iran and isolate that into one issue. Certainly Afghanistan is not about Afghanistan. But we've never really strategic -- not never, but recently in my -- in my memory, how are we going to apply our great resources, our limited resources?
Just to give you an example, I'm on Bob Gates' policy advisory board. And we were together about a month ago. It was the last board meeting while he was still there. And we -- there were about -- as you know, Henry's (sp) on that, and there are about 13 of us in there. And people are talking about different things and Libya, everything.
And I said to Gates, I said, Bob, if you look at the arc here -- and this gets to my point about strategic thinking and analysis of reorienting everything, because we have so militarized our foreign policy; we've militarized everything in the last 20 years, especially -- especially the last 12 years, especially -- is you apply the military, you apply the military, you apply the military; you strip the State Department, you strip USAID. We're still -- we're now starting to build back intelligence and get that back on some footing. But let me stick with my point and I'll end this way.
So as you -- as you look at all this and you -- and you think about where you're going and how you're going to apply your resources, you know that you've got limited resources. What I told Gates was, if you look at the arc that we're talking about, the arc that has now consumed our interests in everything -- because we're at war within the arc -- go from anchoring at -- in North Africa up through the Mediterranean and the Middle East, down through the Persian Gulf, Central, South Asia. Every big problem that we've got -- aside from North Korea -- is -- falls within that arc.
Now how are we dealing with that arc? Because every one of those countries is different. You can't put an American doctrine or a blueprint over the top of Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen. Every one of those situations is different. There's some similarities in some of them. Every one's different. So are we thinking about that? Are we thinking how we're going to use our resources to deal with that?
Last point I'd make -- and everybody knows this, and it's an interesting comment. You talk about how actually the Congress has been very responsible for wasting so many of our resources.
C-130s: Everybody in this room knows about the C-130s. Newt Gingrich's district in Georgia makes C-130s, his old congressional district. So we have more C-130s and we have -- we give -- we're giving them away, have for years. The Air Force, every secretary of defense, every president -- Republican, Democrat -- says, no more; we don't need any, but this is what we need.
The reason that we came up with the BRAC Commission -- and I used to get some pretty rough comments from some of my very loyal defenders and supporters in Nebraska when they'd come to me and when BRAC would come up -- say, we're going to put together a $10 million lobbying group to save Offutt Air Force Base STRATCOM.
I'd say, well, you don't need to do that.
Well, we want you to lead it and head it up.
I said, you want me to lobby to save STRATCOM? On what basis?
I said, no. You guys have it upside down. Our Defense Department budget, it is not a jobs program. It's not an economic development program for my state or any district. If STRATCOM and Omaha can't comply with the criteria that we apply to our defense mechanisms and we put our budgets in those areas for the simple, only reason of national security, then it should be closed.
Well, how can you say that, Senator? You'd be -- we'd lose 6,000 jobs.
I said, I don't want to lose 6,000 jobs. But I can't get up on the Senate floor and mouth that kind of nonsense. Congress is irresponsible as any elected body in the history of man on this stuff, really, and both parties. And that's got to -- got to change, too.
WEISBERG: Senator, you made a very good case for not separating the past from the present. But my instructions are clear, so who has -- who has a question about history.
QUESTIONER: About what?
WEISBERG: History. Yes, Ms. Hauser -- (inaudible).
QUESTIONER: Chuck, there's been a lot of writing lamenting the degree to which the military is now making and shaping policy, not just how they're fighting the war -- speaking out, pressure and all of that stuff. Now, is that because of what you referred to before, that so few presidents in the last period have had military service, or is it a question of the character of the presidents? When you think of Eisenhower, certainly that would not have been the case. Was it because of who he was or because of his history in the military? I'm trying to tie in this --
HAGEL: Yeah, Rita, I think it's both, and I'll amplify on that point. Again, I'm going to make a point here before I answer. The military is always in a tough spot on this. And so we unilaterally -- we being -- we being the civilian control part of our government -- we kind of cast this on them. And you say, well, General, you need to kind of develop this. And so a point that you bring up -- and you and I have had this discussion to some extent -- if you look at the last three presidents, Bush had some National Guard experience; we're uncertain about what happened to his last 18 months, but, you know, at least he was in National Guard and wore a uniform.
Clinton had a tremendous pressure because he was referred to as a draft dodger. So he was intimidated essentially, I think, by the military, and he had a political problem with that. So he had an issue there that he had to be very careful with politically.
And then the next president up, George Bush, I think he genuinely believed that the military was the answer to so much of this, just like the military did. Obviously he was influenced by vice president and by Mr. Rumsfeld.
But if you look at President Bush's second term, there was a whole different set of players for one thing, but his approach to things was different, too. I mean, I think it's pretty clear -- and history has already started to reflect on this and some books have been out and there will be more about Cheney's influence in the White House -- his second term was far less than it was in the first time. Rumsfeld was gone, Wolfowitz was gone, Feith was gone -- most of that team -- gone.
But I think -- I think President Bush really was -- believed that. But he still was very limited in his capacity to really know what the generals were doing and to take on the military. Now, you go to the current president -- probably the third-youngest president we've ever had, certainly one of the most inexperienced presidents we've never had, no military experience -- he too is in a tough spot on this.
Now, I don't attribute all of this to that. But I think that's a factor that has to be played into this. Now, the other part of it -- I saw this up close, Rita (ph), in 12 years in the Senate, and especially that last 10 year period, especially after September 2011 -- or 2001. The military was the -- and Jamie (ph) was there and saw some of this and some of you here might have been in the government then.
The military was the most accessible, most effective agency, department we had immediately to fix problems. Why is that? Well, first of all, they had the biggest budget -- they had the money. They had all the toys, all the equipment. They had the discipline. They had the people. They had the command structure. They had everything. Who else had what the Defense Department had? No one. No one.
We don't have time to worry about the State Department and diplomatic niceties. Terrorism -- if you remember, we were consumed for six years about terrorism. Terrorism, terrorism, terrorism. Damn near every bill we passed in the Congress -- we restructured intelligence, we invented the Department of Homeland Security. We still don't even know what we did on that. 22 agencies and departments we rolled into one. Nobody can manage it. Nobody, and they're all good people, but nobody knows what the hell they've got over there. It's uncontrollable, unmanageable. Everything we did was in this rush to protect America.
Now, there's nothing wrong with that, obviously, but we didn't slow down enough to think through much of anything. So what do you do? You take what's there that's most accessible, immediate, powerful -- that's the military. And you all know, because some of you know about it, you heard about it, you read it -- certainly read it -- is that Rumsfeld was not bashful about saying. for the first four years, I'll take care of that.
Jamie's (ph) boss, the former CIA director, George Tenet, there were -- it's legion. It's -- a lot of it is public now, and there'll be more coming out, the differences that the intelligence guys had with Rumsfeld. So Rumsfeld says, to hell with you, I don't agree with you. I'll set my own intelligence operation up. I remember when Rumsfeld came up and testified when we were restructuring the intelligence community and he said, I'm going to make it simple for you -- I'll take it all.
Do you remember this, Jamie (ph)? He wanted the Defense Department, the secretary of defense, to have control of all intelligence. And I was the first to speak. I said, Don, this has nothing to do with you. I don't know of a person -- he or she lived long ago if there was one, and they started some religions -- (laughter) -- would be -- they would be wise enough and prudent enough to handle that much power. No human being in a democracy or any country should ever have that much power in their hands. Ever.
Well, that's partly what happened too. And then, as I already said, the generals were their easy guys to throw up there because the military was the most revered, most respected -- and by the way, I'm a strong supporter of the military and our veterans, obviously, so this is not in any way to cast any question on them.
But they were just -- they were put in that spot. And that evolved. And I'll end this way on this question -- your question. When McChrystal was fired, that was just kind of the combustible moment that did it. I remember when he gave the speech in London -- Dick McCormick and I have talked about this -- when he gave the speech on London and he got himself in trouble in that Q&A session on Vice President Biden and so on and so on.
McChrystal's a good man, a decent man. What he was doing in London, giving a policy speech as the commander -- the battlefield commander in Afghanistan, our most significant war, what the hell he was doing there doing that I have no idea. I called Bob Gates the next morning. I said, Bob, you better get a hold of this.
The problem -- I use this as the last example. The problem with all this is the culture started to be inculcated with that kind of privilege, or that kind of acceptance by the generals. They didn't think they were doing anything wrong. If McChrystal would have thought that he was doing anything wrong, I doubt if he would have done that. He wasn't -- McChrystal's a good man. He wouldn't have done that. But that's all part of it.
Petraeus is out making policy speeches, has for years. I mean, other generals have. So McChrystal goes to London and makes a policy speech and then he gets himself in trouble in that Q&A. But when that happened, Rita (ph), I mean, that, to me, was the defining moment. Well, I know it was with the White House and so on and that kind of was the beginning of the end for McChrystal.
WEISBERG: Senator, we're just about out of time, but I think we have time for one more quick question and quick answer. Winston Lord.
QUESTIONER: Winston Lord. It's tough to keep into the past, but I will. I want to talk about the political atmosphere in Washington working on Capitol Hill. We all know the toxic polarization today. You alluded briefly to Rush Limbaugh's attack on you, this goes back a few years.
I'm trying to figure out what the mood was in the late '90s and 2000 when you were there. When I served in government as late as in the mid-90's, you could still cross the aisle, you could still have centrist approaches and didn't have litmus tests. We all know the atmosphere now. So what was it like when you were Senator, even though it's only a few years ago? And did the souring of this atmosphere contribute to your exit?
HAGEL: Well, the first part of your question, when -- I was fortunate to get to the Senate in 1996 when there were still real senators there. (Laughter.) And they were senators -- interestingly enough, and this is a theory I've had that in my opinion it becomes clearer and clearer that I'm right on this -- (laughter) -- the World War II generation. I was privileged enough to serve with a number of the World War II generation still. John Chafee, Pat Moynihan -- you can go through about a dozen of them. And I knew Dole very well, I didn't -- he left because, as you know, he ran -- but I knew him.
What's happened in the Senate is we've lost the World War II generation. And the World War II generation was formed, shaped, tempered by, as we all are, their own experiences because we are all, to a great extent, products of our own experiences. But what they gave to this country, that generation, as much as anything else -- and they did great things -- was -- you saw it in the Congress -- you would drive to a consensus, and they never let it get personal. I mean, I put Ted Kennedy in that group even though he was a little younger than -- he was still alive and was a kid during World War II. You know, they'd fight like hell, they could be partisan, they were tough. But they know -- but they knew why they were there. They were there to drive to a consensus to accomplish a goal, to accomplish a solution to a problem, not undermine and not nullify and not personalize and destroy your opponent. They never did that.
And I served with those -- some of those people, and I saw how it can be right. I saw how it can be done right, that they would unify around the common purpose of doing what's right for your country. Now, you have different ways and different approaches, of course. That's democracy; that's the way you should have it.
But in the end as Ted Kennedy and these guys would raise hell, you know, with each other, and they'd fight. They'd come off the Senate floor, never let it get personal -- put their arms around you, let's go have a drink, whatever. I mean, you just -- that's the way it worked. And you'd get a compromise. You'd get a consensus; you'd solve a problem. Wouldn't be perfect, wouldn't be exactly what any of them wanted, but you did it.
Now, moving on to your next point, I mean, I saw the polarization and the paralysis early on. I mean, it was -- you could see it coming. This just didn't happen in the last couple of years. And so to your point about, why didn't I seek a third term? I mean, all the other nonsense -- Limbaugh and those guys are entertainers, and you just -- that's all part of the deal. And the only way you dismiss that, and that enraged them more, when you just say, well, Rush is an effective entertainer --
WEISBERG: You still would have been easily re-elected, wouldn't have you? I mean --
HAGEL: Well, I mean, I did -- I did win re-election with 84 percent, you know, so --
WEISBERG: You weren't facing a tough contest. I mean, that wasn't a big factor --
HAGEL: No, it wasn't, and -- but I don't know. I mean, I think I would have been re-elected, but -- in any event, I then had to make a decision whether I was going to go back to what I said when I ran in 1996. And when I ran in '96, I said two terms would be enough if the good people of Nebraska would send me for 12 years, for two terms.
I think these jobs need new energy, they need some turnover, they need new ideas. And I wasn't about ready to shrivel up, or the job was too tough and I was all bent over and I couldn't handle it anymore. But I thought, well, maybe I should stick with that.
But then I looked at it from all the different angles, which you have to, and I came to this conclusion, like we all do. I mean, we all in life have an hourglass, and the sand drips, and it drips, and it drips. And you get to a point where you -- where we each start to get serious about, all right, what do you want to do with the rest of that sand? Where do you want to apply it? Another six years in the Senate? How effective can you be, would you be, do you want to be? So on and so on and so on and so on.
And I came to the conclusion that that's not where I wanted to be. I think it would have been different if the vilification -- and I'm not talking about me, anybody picking on me. I'm a big boy, I can handle myself. I'm not talking about me personally; I just didn't like the environment, I didn't like the culture, I didn't like what I saw coming, and I -- either party, both parties by the way.
And that's just not where I wanted to be for six years. And I just thought I could -- my -- I could do more on the outside. I could hopefully be more effective on the outside and do some other things, and I remembered the night I got elected -- and I was not supposed to win the primary, I was not supposed to win the general. In fact, I was behind by 25 points in August of 1996 and then won by 14 points against an incumbent governor, who now is the senior senator from Nebraska, Ben Nelson.
But I remember when I won that night, my wife said to me, do you think you can keep one job, the same job, for six years? Because I'd never had a job in my life that I had had the same job for six years. It was a pretty legitimate question, but it was a hell of a time to worry about it -- (laughter) -- at that point. But I had actually thought about that. So I think you add all that up, and it wasn't just one thing when -- that I decided not to run. But it was not a political concern that I was not going to be re-elected. I anticipated I was, I was going to have to work hard; I knew that I wasn't going to get reelected by 84 percent this time.
But you know, it's still retail politics in Nebraska, and you go out and explain yourself, and I just -- one last thing on this. When all the veterans' groups were very upset with me, when I was asking the questions on Iraq and against the surge and so on -- and I'm a life member of the Legion, the VFW and all of them -- I decided the only way to handle this, like I've always done and with everything in life, is just go out to their conventions in Nebraska and just hit it straight on. And I asked to speak to their conventions, and I did.
And at the state convention of the American Legion, which everyone knows the Legion's the largest veterans' organization, went out, and they had about 1,500 people there. It was in Grand Island, Nebraska; I went in, and they're very respectful, and most of them didn't agree with me. Most of them were surprised; they couldn't -- they thought maybe I had gotten somehow really bizarre, Washington-ized, and gone really wobbly on them and flaky, and so I owed it to them to explain myself, and I did.
I don't think I changed many minds in that audience that day. It's interesting now how many letters I get a week and how many people come up to me, you know, on the streets in Nebraska and say, boy, if we would have listened to you, Senator. They gave me a standing ovation at the end of that, and most still didn't agree with me. The reason they did that, they respected the honesty and the directness and me coming out and -- not defending myself; I didn't defend myself -- explain myself, and I let them ask questions. That's what we should be doing more of in this country.
WEISBERG: Well, Senator, that's a fitting note to end on, and I'm afraid all we have time for. So please join me in thanking Senator Hagel.
HAGEL: Thank you. (Applause.)
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