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A Conversation with Senator Chuck Hagel on The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy [Prepared Remarks]

Speaker: Chuck Hagel, Member, U.S. Senate (R-NE)
Presider: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
November 15, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations Washington, DC



Council on Foreign Relations
Washington, DC


Last year, I wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine that “a wise foreign policy recognizes that U.S. leadership is determined as much by our commitment to principle as by our exercise of power.” For decades, the strength of U.S. leadership has brought together allies in common cause, addressing common challenges with common action. In February 2003, three weeks before the U.S. invaded Iraq, I said in a speech at Kansas State University:

“America must approach the world with a sense of purpose in world affairs that is anchored by our ideals, a principled realism that seeks not to re-make the world in our image, but to help make a better world.

We must avoid the traps of hubris and imperial temptation that come with great power. Our foreign policy should reflect the hope and promise of America tempered with a mature wisdom that is the mark of our national character. In this new era of possibilities and responsibilities, America will require a wider lens view of how the world sees us, so that we can better understand the world, and our role in it.”

Trust and confidence in America is about more than our military might or economic power. Power alone will not build coalitions, will not inspire trust, will not demonstrate confident leadership, will not resolve complicated problems, and will not defeat the threats that the United States will confront in the 21 st century.

After World War II, America used its leadership and power to help forge a consensus on vital international issues. We built relationships, alliances and international organizations. By doing so, we enhanced our power, our ability to influence, and our ability to protect our national interests.

These institutions are as vital today as when they were formed. They need constant adjustment to reflect the realities of today and tomorrow…but what remains unchanged is the critical importance of these alliances to achieve global stability. America’s past leaders recognized that the United States, alone, was incapable of confronting global threats and challenges.

We must maintain a clear-eyed focus on our vital interests and understand regional complexities and dynamics as we pursue our strategic objectives. The recent violence during President Bush’s trip to South America and the reluctance of some of our regional neighbors to pursue a regional free trade agreement underscore this point.

Nowhere is this perspective more important than in the Middle East. Ethnic currents, nationalist and religious ideologies, historical tensions, and long-running conflicts intersect to create a complex regional dynamic. For there to be any hope of peace and stability in the Middle East, American policies must be based on regional perspectives and relationships.

A close friend and ally, Israel, remains threatened by some of its neighbors. Violent Islamic extremism finds refuge in Iraq, Iran, and Syria and seeks to make inroads elsewhere in the region. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction remains a threat. Political and economic reform is limited and incomplete. And, the United States has nearly 160,000 soldiers in Iraq in support of Iraq’s uncertain future.

As President George H.W. Bush’s National Security Advisor, General Brent Scowcroft, wrote in November 2004 in the Washington Post,

“…we no longer have the luxury of treating Middle East policy as a series of unrelated events running on separate calendars. We face the need for simultaneous actions to avoid failed states while reducing the incentives to violence and instability that threaten American and friendly states throughout the region. Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Iran and terrorism are parts of a whole and can only be satisfactorily engaged as such. To cut through this Gordian knot will require not only a new approach but the deep, sustained commitment of the United States and a significant investment of the President’s attention.”

The challenges that we face in the Middle East are more real today than a year ago. The unity of Iraq is not assured and its insurgency risks further destabilization of its neighbors. The shakiness of the Assad regime in Syria, the recent terrorist bombings in Jordan, and Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the region continue to pose dangerous threats to regional stability. Many Arab states are concerned that Iran is emerging as the big regional winner.

Trust and confidence in the United States has been seriously eroded. We are seen by many in the Middle East as an obstacle to peace, an aggressor and an occupier. Our policies are a source of significant friction not only in the region but in the wider international community. Our purpose and power are questioned. We are at the same time both a stabilizing and a destabilizing force in the Middle East.

We face the possibility of a much more dangerous and destabilized Middle East, with consequences that would extend far beyond the region’s borders.

There have been positive, recent developments in Libya, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. To maximize the potential of these developments, the United States must demonstrate diplomatic agility to adjust and respond to the uncertainties, nuances and uncontrollables that the region will continue to face.

Iraq held a successful constitutional referendum on October 15. Iraqi political parties are now preparing for parliamentary elections on December 15 leading to the formation of a constitutionally-based, freely-elected government.

As Iraq moves toward achieving a formal political transition, the United States should recognize that we must act to help build an international consensus on Iraq and address the regional complexities of the Middle East. We have few good options.

Our strategic goal should be to get out of Iraq under conditions that offer Iraq the best possible opportunity for success—Iraqi success being defined as a free and self-governing country. This is not about setting a timeline. This is about pursuing policies designed to gradually pull the United States further away from the day to day responsibilities of defending Iraq and de facto governance of Iraq, and encouraging and demanding more responsibility from the Iraqis.

The future of Iraq will be determined by the Iraqi people and its leaders. The new Iraqi government will have the potential for a wider vision and a longer horizon, establishing more stability and more confidence to engage the challenges that lie ahead. The recent decision by the UN Security Council to extend the mandate for the multinational forces in Iraq until the end of 2006 helps the next Iraqi government develop its capabilities to govern, defend and support itself, while continuing to limit America’s role as the only real “enforcer” in Iraq.

As the Iraqi government assumes more responsibility for governing Iraq, so too must Iraq’s forces continue to take on more responsibility to defend their country. The U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, underscored this point on October 25 when he told Gwen Ifill on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer that he believes that the United States is, “on the right track to start significant reductions [of U.S. military forces] in the coming year.” I believe the United States should begin drawing down forces in Iraq next year.

U.S. military power is not a surrogate force upon which Iraq can indefinitely depend. The current Iraqi government’s announcement on November 2 to accept the return of junior officers of the former Iraqi army—reversing U.S. Ambassador Paul Bremer’s decision to disband Hussein’s armed forces—was a critically important development. Political confidence and military capability will reinforce and strengthen Iraq’s ability to govern and defend itself and sustain that confidence. We should not obstruct this development. The United States must encourage and expect demonstrations of new Iraqi independence and decision-making.

Secretary Rice acknowledged before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on October 19, “there is no doubt the international community needs to be more involved with the Iraqis—there’s no doubt about it—especially the neighbors.” But, today there is no standing mechanism for regional partners, with support from the international community, to develop consensus on building relationships around common security, political and economic interests.

Henry Kissinger wrote in the Washington Post in August 2005 that we need:

“a political initiative inviting an international framework for Iraq’s future. Some of our allies may prefer to act as bystanders, but reality will not permit this for their own safety. Their cooperation is needed, not so much for the military as for the political task, which will test, above all, the West’s statesmanship in shaping a global system relevant to its necessities.”

Once the newly elected Iraqi government is in place after the December 15 elections, the United States, along with its allies, should propose a ministerial-level regional security conference on Iraq. This conference should be held in the region—perhaps with Egypt as the host—and should be endorsed by a new UN Security Council resolution. The conference would bring together Iraq and its regional neighbors—Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Syria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The G-8 countries and international institutions—the UN, the EU, NATO and the World Bank—should also be involved in this effort.

The conference agenda should focus on the three pillars for Mideast stability—security, political, and economic. The conference would be broader, both in its agenda and participation, than the upcoming meeting in Cairo on Iraqi reconciliation that the Arab League has proposed. Unlike last weekend’s “Forum for the Future” meeting in Bahrain, which emphasized reform and economic growth, this conference would be focused on building regional cohesion based, at least initially, on Iraq. And, unlike past international conferences on Iraq—Sharm el-Sheikh in November 2004 and Brussels in June 2005—this conference would not be a one-time event. The conference must produce agreement to maintain and regularly convene a sub-ministerial forum structured to effectively address Iraq’s ongoing challenges. Most important, it cannot be seen as a U.S.-imposed event to further U.S. interests and influence in the Middle East.

Creating a formalized regional mechanism is vital for security in the Middle East. Iraq’s neighbors will be the countries most impacted by the outcome there. Although a regional mechanism does not assure Iraq’s success, the active involvement of the countries in the region allows a more promising future of stability for Iraq and lessens the chances for civil war and sectarian violence. It also lessens the possibilities that further instability and violence in Iraq will spread like a raging inferno throughout the region.

Establishing a regional and international umbrella for Iraq would mean that the United States take a shared role in a regional security conference in Iraq. This does not mean that America would withdraw abruptly from Iraq. The United States should continue to leverage its influence, urging all Iraqi parties to use the political process to address the deep fractures of their society. We must also remain focused on the mission of standing up capable Iraqi Security Forces.

The international community must now recognize the changed circumstances of a constitutionally-based Iraqi government and join Iraq’s neighbors by investing in Iraq’s future success.

The role for international institutions will grow in importance as Iraq becomes more self-assured and able to govern. The World Bank, the United Nations and NATO all need to be more actively engaged in Iraq. The Oil-for-Food debacle is a stain on the UN’s reputation in Iraq. But that is not the UN’s role in Iraq today. The United Nations can help provide Iraq both a broader political umbrella, and greater support and expertise to help build and coordinate government institutions, programs and structures. Last weekend’s visit by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to Iraq—his first visit since the war—should help lead to this expanded role for the UN.

The Iraq war should not be debated in the United States on a partisan political platform. This debases our country, trivializes the seriousness of war and cheapens the service and sacrifices of our men and women in uniform. War is not a Republican or Democrat issue. The casualties of war are from both parties. The Bush Administration must understand that each American has a right to question our policies in Iraq and should not be demonized for disagreeing with them. Suggesting that to challenge or criticize policy is undermining and hurting our troops is not democracy nor what this country has stood for, for over 200 years. The Democrats have an obligation to challenge in a serious and responsible manner, offering solutions and alternatives to the Administration’s policies.

Vietnam was a national tragedy partly because Members of Congress failed their country, remained silent and lacked the courage to challenge the Administrations in power until it was too late. Some of us who went through that nightmare have an obligation to the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam to not let that happen again. To question your government is not unpatriotic—to not question your government is unpatriotic. America owes its men and women in uniform a policy worthy of their sacrifices.

Today, the Senate engaged in a legitimate debate over exit strategy in Iraq as the Senate considered and voted on two Senate resolutions. This is a significant step toward the Congress exercising its Constitutional responsibilities over matters of war.

As we consider the regional context of stability and security in Iraq, there is another issue that we must deal with—a relationship between the United States and Iran. The fact that our two governments cannot—or will not—sit down to exchange views must end.

Iran is a regional power; it has major influence in Iraq and throughout the Gulf region. Its support of terrorist organizations and the threat it poses to Israel is all the more reason that the U.S. must engage Iran. Any lasting solution to Iran’s nuclear weapons program will also require the United States’ direct discussions with Iran. The United States is capable of engaging Iran in direct dialogue without sacrificing any of its interests or objectives. As a start, we should have direct discussions with Iran on the margins of any regional security conference on Iraq, as we did with Iran in the case of Afghanistan.

As Abbas Milani, Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford, Co-Director of the Hoover Institution’s Iran Democracy Project, and former professor at Tehran University, wrote in the Wall Street Journal on October 31:

“The time for a new grand bargain with Iran’s people has arrived. Instead of saber-rattling, the U.S. must encourage the unfolding discussions in Iran…Every element of this new bargain—ending the embargo and replacing it with smart sanctions; lifting the bans on airplane spare parts and offering earthquake warning systems; and even direct discussions with the regime—must be seen as part of a grand strategy to help the Iranian people achieve their dream of democracy.”

America and the West need to pursue a wise course in considering the impact of our actions on those in Iran who would welcome a new openness in their country. Engagement, backed by confident and strong U.S. leadership, would re-frame our relationship. More unilateral U.S. sanctions—particularly third country sanctions—are exactly the wrong approach. Why would the United States want to give the Iranian regime more reasons to point to a foreign threat and alienate our friends and allies who share our concerns about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, its threat to Israel, and its support for terrorism? That course is dangerous and self-defeating.

Central to peace in the Middle East is resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Earlier this year, we witnessed the election of a new Palestinian President and Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza. The President’s announcement on October 20 to extend former World Bank President Jim Wolfensohn’s economic mission in the region and Secretary Rice’s announcement last night to appoint Major General Keith Dayton to succeed Lieutenant General William “Kip” Ward as the U.S. security coordinator are very important and need more attention and support.

Developments since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza, however, risk dragging us back into cycles of despair and violence. Palestinian terrorists have struck Israel. Israel continues to expand settlements in the West Bank. Gazans have not yet seen a difference in their lives as borders remain closed with only a trickle of goods and people from Gaza to either Israel or Egypt. These uncertain conditions in Gaza create a disastrous investment climate. Gaza cannot remain a prison to its own citizens.

Last night, Secretary Rice, Mr. Wolfensohn, and General Ward helped Israelis and Palestinians reach an agreement that begins to re-open Gaza, in particular the Rafah crossing with Egypt that is Gaza’s primary link to the world. As Secretary Rice has noted, this significant development will help create “patterns of cooperation” that will be critical to achieve greater progress toward peace in the Middle East. Secretary Rice, Mr. Wolfensohn, and General Ward deserve credit for this achievement.

But as all three clearly understand, major challenges remain. Both Israelis and Palestinians have unmet obligations, neither side can justify further inaction. American leadership can push and prod but we cannot force Israelis or Palestinians to negotiate.

We must also be prepared to identify and act on strategic regional opportunities to help achieve broader Arab-Israeli peace. The progress in ending Syria’s corrosive influence in Lebanon should help create opportunities to undermine Syrian-backed Palestinian terrorist groups that have operated out of Lebanon, and thereby help to support Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The course of diplomatic events on Syria may also eventually help create opportunities to reinvigorate Israeli-Syrian negotiations, including the future status of the Golan Heights.

The United States should be very cautious about supporting the collapse of the Assad regime. That would be a dangerous event, with the potential to trigger wider regional instability at a time when our capacity to help shape a desired regional outcome is very limited. Our objective should be a strategic shift in Syria’s perspective and actions that would open the way to greater common interests for the countries of the region.

Terrorism is a real threat and a present danger that we must confront and defeat. But we must not sacrifice the strengths and ideals of America that the world has come to respect and trust, and that define us. That is why I co-sponsored Senator McCain’s amendment to prohibit cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment of any detainee under the custody of any branch of the U.S. Government. I strongly oppose any exception to this prohibition. As General Colin Powell wrote to Senator McCain in support of this amendment,

“Our troops need to hear from the Congress, which has an obligation to speak to such matters under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution.”

The recent media reports of a worldwide American system of secret, black-hole jails, run by the Central Intelligence Agency, and developed explicitly to circumvent our obligations under the Geneva Convention, sullies everything that America represents. It further erodes the world’s confidence in America’s word and our purpose.

As columnist Jim Hoagland wrote last weekend in the Washington Post:

“Policies and attitudes have to change, too. Lifting the legal fog that intentionally envelops Guantanamo detainees is an urgent need, to reaffirm Americans’ commitment to the rule of law as well as to stabilize the country’s standing abroad. So is establishing with Congress accountability and some form of transparency for prisoners held abroad for U.S. purposes.”

The Constitution also establishes Congress’ authority and responsibility regarding decisions to go to war. The course of events in Iraq has laid bare the failure to prepare for, plan for, and understand the broad consequences and implications of the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq. Where is the accountability? In the November 8 Washington Post, Leslie Gelb, President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, and Anne-Marie Slaughter, Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, wrote,

“Our Founding Fathers wanted the declaration of war to concentrate the minds. Returning to the Constitution’s text and making it work through legislation requiring joint deliberate action may be the only way to give the decision to make war the care it deserves.”

The American people should demand that the President request a Declaration of War and the Congress formally declare war, if and when the President believes that committing American troops is in the vital national security interests of this country. This would make the President and Congress, together, accountable for their actions—just as the Founders of our country intended.

One of America’s greatest 21 st century challenges is not to lose the next generation of the world…especially the next generation of Muslims. This is a generation that yearns for the opportunity and possibilities of globalization and reform. This is a generation that is prepared to embrace the politics of change and reform. We cannot afford to lose this generation—in the Middle East and around the world.

If we do, my children and your children will inherit a very dangerous and complicated world. The choices that America makes today; the policies we pursue; the actions we take; the friends and allies we make; and our preparation for the future will define the global frame of reference, and our role in the world, for decades to come.

I have spoken today about the regional interconnects of the Middle East and the need for new strategic U.S. thinking. This is not unique to this region. Regional dynamics infuse the challenges we face around the world…Asia, Africa, the Eurasian landmass, the Western Hemisphere. What the United States must help prevent is the possibility of several destabilizing events across regions. The complexities of the 21 st century demand strategic, over-the-horizon American thinking, diplomacy and leadership. That will require creative diplomacy and a recognition of the varied perspectives and values of other countries. We can help countries reach their destination but it must be on their terms and their way, or it will fail and create a deep and dangerous anti-Americanism throughout the world.

A few weeks ago, I was looking through some old photographs and letters that my father wrote to his parents and sister when he was in the South Pacific during World War II. I found a picture of my father when he was the Commander of American Legion Post 84 in Ainsworth, Nebraska and my mother when she was President of the Legion Auxiliary back in the early 50’s. I started thinking about how my family’s life revolved around the American Legion and this country…what it meant to my family. That spirit of helping others, service, patriotism, is who we are as Americans.

When America’s actions abroad have reflected these core values, we have inspired trust and confidence in the world. Demonstrating America’s purpose is at the heart of America’s strength. Nations, like individuals, must earn respect, confidence and the right to lead.

As I said at Kansas State three weeks before we invaded Iraq:

“What distinguishes America is not our power, for the world has known great power. It is America’s purpose and our commitment to making a better life for all people. That is the America the world needs to see. A wise, thoughtful and steady nation, worthy of its power, generous of spirit, and humble in its purpose.”