In the first months of the Obama presidency in 2009, Chuck Hagel, who had just finished two terms as a U.S. senator, went to the White House to visit with the friend he had made during the four years they overlapped in the Senate.
So, President Obama asked, what do you think about foreign policy and defense issues?
According to an account that Hagel later gave, and is reported here for the first time, he told Obama: “We are at a time where there is a new world order. We don’t control it. You must question everything, every assumption, everything they” — the military and diplomats — “tell you. Any assumption 10 years old is out of date. You need to question our role. You need to question the military. You need to question what are we using the military for.”
According to his own account, Hagel also said, “Afghanistan will be defining for your presidency in the first term., perhaps even for a second term.” The key was not to get “bogged down.”
Obama did not say much but listened. At the time, Hagel considered Obama a “loner,” inclined to keep a distance and his own counsel. But Hagel’s comments help explain why Obama nominated his former Senate colleague to be his next secretary of defense. The two share similar views and philosophies as the Obama administration attempts to define the role of the United States in the transition to a post-superpower world.
This worldview is part hawk and part dove. It amounts, in part, to a challenge to the wars of President George W. Bush. It holds that the Afghanistan war has been mismanaged and the Iraq war unnecessary. War is an option, but very much a last resort.
So, this thinking goes, the U.S. role in the world must be carefully scaled back — this is not a matter of choice but of facing reality; the military needs to be treated with deep skepticism; lots of strategic military and foreign policy thinking is out of date; and quagmires like Afghanistan should be avoided.
The bottom line: The United States must get out of these massive land wars — Iraq and Afghanistan — and, if possible, avoid future large-scale war.
Although much discussion of the Hagel nomination has centered on his attitudes about Iran, Israel and the defense budget, Hagel’s broader agreement with Obama on overall philosophy is probably more consequential.
Hagel has also said he believes it is important that a defense secretary should not dictate foreign policy and that policy should be made in the White House.
He privately voiced reservations about Obama’s decision in late 2009 to add 51,000 troops to Afghanistan. “The president has not had commander-in-chief control of the Pentagon since Bush senior was president,” Hagel said privately in 2011.
If Hagel is confirmed, as appears likely, he and the president will have a large task in navigating this new world order. Avoiding war is tied directly to the credibility of the threat to go to war.
Hagel’s experience provides two unusual perspectives. The first is as a former E-5 Army sergeant in 1968, which he has described as “the worst year of the Vietnam War.“ In summation, another Vietnam must be avoided.
The second is the Georgetown University class that he taught called “Redefining Geopolitical Relationships.” He asks the class the basic question: Where is all this going?