Chuck Hagel, in His Own Words, on U.S. Foreign Policy Challenges

The potential next secretary of defense talks about Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, and China.

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Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel is reported to be among the choices for President Barack Obama's next defense secretary.

Robert Nolan is an editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS. You can follow him on Twitter @robert_nolan.

In recent weeks, the debate surrounding the potential nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel as the next U.S. Secretary of Defense has taken on epic proportions. Despite the media storm, little has been said about how Hagel would actually manage the defense of the United States and take on the global challenges we face in the year ahead.

In an interview I conducted with the former senator from Nebraska and chairman of the Atlantic Council for the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series now airing on PBS, Hagel outlined a number of his views on American foreign policy. The interview, excerpts of which appears below, was conducted on the sidelines of the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

On Afghanistan and Iraq:

Here we are 12 years in Afghanistan, having very significant difficulties on winding that down. It's easy to get into war, it's easy to intervene. Not easy to "un-intervene," unwind, or get out of war. I think that's the primary lesson of the last 10 years that all nations are looking at.

One of the reasons we're in trouble in Afghanistan is because we went well beyond our mission. We accomplished the mission then we took our eye off the ball and intervened, invaded, and occupied Iraq. And now, 12 years later, we're not sure what our mission is. Is our mission to eliminate the Taliban? That never was our mission. Is it nation building? Is it sending children to school? Is it building sewer systems? Is it going after al Qaeda? All those factors are complicated, but they have to be carefully thought through. I'm not sure we've done that very well in the last 10 years, but do I think we'll do it smarter. We always learn. There tough lessons to learn. Vietnam was a tough lesson for us to learn.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Syria.]

On Libya, Syria, and Iran:

I think we have to be a little judicious when refer to Libya as a case or model that we can hold up as a successful intervention here as we go into the second decade of the 21st century. It may turn out that way, it may not, but I think one of the things that did come out of that intervention was a realization that it's always going to take strong alliances of many countries and interests to do this.

If you look at [the Libya intervention], you know that both Russia and China have used that not to go along with tougher UN sanctions on Syria. ‘You clever fellows tricked us on the Libyan thing; you didn't talk about regime change, you talked about humanitarian issues. But after all, it was all about regime change.' This is another component of Iran. We get ourselves all jumbled up on that issue because there are some people in the United States and other countries that push for regime change. But once you start that, that's another ballgame, that's another direction you're taking. So you lose sight of all the other strategic interests that should be the focus and, up to the point, have been. Iran's case, obviously, is the development of the capacity to create nuclear weapons, but if you mix that in Iran with regime change, you've got a whole new series of combustible elements. Libya was the same.

Each of these countries, as I said earlier, is a lesson on to itself. And when you are using the United Nations—I'm a strong supporter of the United Nations, I'm a strong supporter of all these coalitions of common interest that we built after WWII, and they're going to be more important, I think, today and in the future than they've ever been for obvious reasons—you have to factor into this equation, are we setting a precedent?

[See a collection of political cartoons on Iran.]

On future threats:

Cyber is a huge issue, that cyberwarfare dimension which we are just now just getting our arms around, as other nations are. If you concentrate on that arena of warfare, you can completely paralyze a nation. You can paralyze power grids; you can paralyze financial services; you can stop a country; you can paralyze computers on ships. I think the greater threat to all of us is going to be directly a dagger at the heart of economic interests, and certainly I would start with cyber. All the other threats are still going to be there—nuclear proliferation, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and all the things we're dealing with today. But, in the end, we can deal with those; we can manage those; we can work our way through those. The big issues are things like cyber, that's where we've really got to pay attention. It's not like sending one army against another. You're not going to win that by having a bigger navy that the other guy's navy. You need big navies, you need strong security, but you need so much more now today to protect our economic interests, which are our vital security interests.

On China:

China is going to emerge and grow. It should; we should welcome that. They're going to be competitors, they are now, as are India, Brazil and other nations. That's OK. Trade, exchanges, relationships, common interests; all those emerging nations and economic, and strengths are all captive to basically the same kinds of things: stability, security, energy sources, resources, people. Everything that we have to have in our country to prosper, so do the Chinese.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should There Be an International Treaty on Cyberwarfare?]

The Chinese have bigger problems though. They've got huge problems, starting with the fact that they've got 1.3 billion people, and hundreds of millions of them live in abject poverty. That means jobs, that mean all the rest. They've got energy issues they're going to be living with. They are a communist, authoritarian, opaque government. There's no transparency. What they have and what they don't have, we're not quite sure. They've made tremendous strides. They are a great power today, and they going to continue to be a great power—and that's okay. But we shouldn't cower in the wake of that, or we shouldn't be concerned that they're going to take our place in the world.

On America's future:

I would not trade America's position in the world—our ledger, our debts and assets—for any country in the world. There isn't a country in the world even close to America. When you look at first, we are a nation of laws. We have the largest, but most importantly, the most flexible and agile economy in the world. People are not trying to get into China, they're trying to get out of China. The United States is the only great country where people are trying to get into to this country for obvious reasons. When you look at some of those fundamental foundational elements of a country, an economic system, of personal incentive, people being able to soar as high as your God-given talent and hard work will allow you; that's pretty important with a tremendous emergence of talent all over the world.

[See 2012: The Year in Cartoons.]

So I'm not worried about this country if we continue to do the wise things, the smart things. We lead the world; we don't dictate to the world, we don't impose to the world, we don't intervene everywhere, and we don't occupy and invade. We work with our allies. We do exactly what Eisenhower, Truman, and Marshall, and all those other wise leaders after WWII did. That's what's brought us over the last 65 years to where we are.

We have problems; we're going to continue to have problems. Every generation in the history of man has had problems and challenges, but it is all up to one thing, and that's response. How do you respond? And that always tells the difference.

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