Ten Hagel Quotes You Need to Know

Chuck Hagel has built up a long and detailed record of his thinking on national security. In speeches and op-eds, Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, has presented a vision of American foreign policy that calls for building alliances, even with adversaries, and for recognizing the limitations of force and the patience required of diplomacy. Here are 10 quotes from President Obama’s nominee to succeed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that give us a better idea of what to expect from the former senator.

1.    “There will be no victory or defeat for the United States in Iraq.”

At the height of anti-Iraq War fever in November 2006, the Bush administration was facing a decision: double-down with a massive troop “surge” or pull out before the insurgency could do any more damage. As party lines ruled the day, Hagel published an op-ed in the Washington Post that broke ranks and said out loud that the U.S. was not winning the war. Hagel opposed the coming troop surge and advocated withdrawal. “We have misunderstood, misread, misplanned and mismanaged our honorable intentions in Iraq with an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam,” he wrote. By then, Hagel’s opposition was no secret, but the article stuck in Washington’s collective mind.

When Hagel retired in 2008, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) said this in his floor tribute speech: “Senator Hagel's opposition to the war carried very special impact. He is a conservative, a member of the president's own political party, and a military veteran. In fact, he still carries shrapnel in his chest and remnants of burns to his face from his service as an infantryman in Vietnam. Senator Hagel now calls Mr. Bush's war in Iraq ‘an absolute replay of Vietnam.’”

2.    “The worst thing we can do, the most dangerous thing we can do is continue to isolate nations, is to continue to not engage nations. Great powers engage.”

The foreign policy debate over engagement with antagonistic regimes like Iran and North Korea -- and even China and Russia -- continues to rage. Hagel, in a keynote speech to the Israel Policy Forum in New York in December 2008, put himself at odds with the large chunk of Washington -- and Congress -- that prefers sanctions and military threats to diplomacy in attempts mitigate threats abroad. But Hagel’s focus on alliances will fit nicely with the Pentagon’s desire for “relationship building” and “building partner capacity” with friendly foreign armies. In warning that the military can’t fix Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran, Hagel has called for the U.S. to work the region’s countries into “some alignment of common interests.”  

3.    "I told Obama he should pick Biden as his running mate."

In 2008, Barack Obama had a wide selection of Democrats from which to pick his vice presidential running mate. Obama, a young, one-term senator with a worldly personal background but little experience in governance, had already sought out foreign policy mentoring from his elders in Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), Sen. Dick Lugar (R-IN), Hagel, and Joe Biden, a longtime senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. When Biden’s own run for the presidency fizzled, Obama kept him in close counsel and made the white-haired elder his second, with Hagel’s blessing. Since occupying the White House, Obama has kept Hagel close. Now the president has Biden at his side, Kerry at the State Department, and Hagel in the Pentagon.

4.    “There is no glory in war, only suffering.”

At the ground-breaking for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall in 1982, a much younger Hagel uttered that bold phrase, reflecting the disdain of the nation at the war. Hagel and his brother, Tom, served together in Vietnam, earning Purple Hearts at a time when Americans did not support the troops like they do today. But the wounds have never healed. Hagel frequently invokes the “folly” of Vietnam and is viewed as a non-interventionist. That makes him an interesting pick to lead the military at this moment. In May 2011, once again at the wall, Hagel repeated the phrase in a speech. Keep that in mind as Hagel likely directs the end of the Afghanistan war and the beginning of the expensive post-war era for millions of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, some facing a lifetime of emotional and physical healing. “As we have painfully learned from the tragic misadventure of Vietnam, society must always separate the war from the warrior. We do not celebrate the Vietnam War. We commemorate and historically recognize it.”

5.    “I don't have to be President. I don't have to be a senator. I just have to live with myself.”

On the Senate floor in late 2008, tribute speeches poured in over Hagel’s reputation as an independent voice and respected leader on foreign policy and national security that ignored party lines. As a result, there is a record of praise for Hagel that would appear to make his confirmation far easier than has been portrayed recently. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said, “In two terms in the Senate, Chuck has earned the respect of his colleagues and risen to national prominence as a clear voice on foreign policy and national security.” Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) called Hagel “one of the bravest and most fiercely independent Members of this legislative body.” Reid said that quote, which he appeared to paraphrase on the Senate floor, was Hagel’s answer to those calling for him to run for the presidency or vice presidency. Byrd said: “The Senate needs strong, independent voices like Senator Hagel -- lawmakers who are willing to put the best interests of our country and American people over partisan politics.” Sen. Richard Lugar (R-IN) said, “In the Senate, Chuck embraced responsibility for U.S. national security as few Senators have in recent decades.”

6.    “The United States will remain committed to defending Israel. Our relationship with Israel is a special and historic one. But it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice.”

Perhaps the loudest pre-nomination concern over Hagel has been his allegedly insufficient support for Israel. But in a 2006 speech on the Senate floor, Hagel said the U.S. should walk and chew gum at the same time in the Middle East. He said that Israel has the right to defend itself, he blasted Arab attacks, and he called for an international military force to deploy along the Lebanese border. But he also said: “The United States and Israel must understand that it is not in their long-term interests to allow themselves to become isolated in the Middle East and the world. Neither can allow themselves to drift into an ‘us against the world’ global optic or zero-sum game. That would marginalize America's global leadership, our trust and influence, further isolating Israel, and it would prove disastrous for both countries, as well as the region. It is in Israel's interest, as much as ours, that the United States be seen by all states in the Middle East as fair. This is the currency of trust.” That position may not mesh with some senators’ views. But how different is it from the White House’s?

7.    “We must avoid the traps of hubris and imperial temptation that comes with great power.”

With the United States more than a year into the global war on terrorism, Hagel invoked the anti-imperial warnings of Winston Churchill in delivering the Landon Lecture at Kansas State University. It was February 2003, and the Bush administration was on the verge of invading Iraq -- an action that would marry U.S. troops to that country for eight years. Hagel set the bar high for using American military force to solve foreign policy problems. Staring down the concern over Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, Hagel said, “American purpose requires more than the application of American power,” warning that the U.S. would have to stay in Iraq for post-war rebuilding. “War, if it is necessary, should be a means, and not an end, to achieve a plan of action to encourage conflict resolution and peaceful change in Iraq and throughout the Middle East.”

8.     “We forgot all the lessons of Vietnam and the preceding history.”

In 2009, Hagel challenged President Obama and the United States to get out of Afghanistan and Iraq sooner rather than later, arguing that neither war was America’s to win. “Win what?” he asked, explaining that changing minds and the quality of life in places like the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region would require “political accommodation and reconciliation.” That term was far more controversial three years ago, when Hagel inked it in the Washington Post.  And, again, Hagel pushed for long-term, multinational coalition building across regions that work with perceived adversaries to find common interests. “Does anyone believe we will get to a responsible resolution on Iran without Russia?” Good question, still.


9.    “It's never a good easy clean choice in foreign policy.”

In a 2007 interview at the Council on Foreign Relations, Hagel basically rejected the “with us or against us” approach of the Bush administration and took a sharp jab at the talking points heard on the presidential campaign trail. Hagel was basically telling the partisans in Washington to leave national security to the grown-ups. Look for him to show his appreciation for nuance in the massive Defense Department by resisting rhetorical spit-balling from Obama’s detractors on issues like the budget, China, Iran, Russia, and even Israel.

10.    “Time is the most critical commodity you have.  If you squander the time, if you squander the moment, if you squander the opportunity, if you squander the boldness, what price do you pay on that?” 

In that same CFR forum heading into the 2008 election cycle, Hagel criticized the Bush administration for not doing more to promote international alliances, spending too much time reacting to crises and not driving a long-term strategic vision. He later challenged President Obama to start thinking about how to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, Pentagon workers describe 2012 as a year spent in waiting -- for a budget, for troop numbers in Afghanistan, and, frankly, for a new defense secretary. If past is prologue, don’t expect a Secretary Hagel to slow roll into the job. Could he convince the president to speed up an Afghanistan war ending sooner than 2014? It wouldn’t be out of character.

PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images