Hagel on Iran in November 2010

Chuck Hagel/Asia Society Flickr

With the speculation over former Sen. Chuck Hagel being nominated for SecDef, I thought it might be helpful to cite excerpts from a briefing the Atlantic Council gave on the first report of its task force on Iran back in November 2010, during which he indicated strong skepticism about the wisdom of attacking Iran, due to war weariness on the part of the public (which, of course, has only grown since) and because he didn’t see any way that such a campaign would not result in sending in ground troops. You can find the whole transcript here.

The task force is co-chaired by Hagel and former Amb. Stuart Eizenstat, who served in senior posts in the Carter and Clinton administrations. The task force is staffed by Barbara Slavin, formerly a regular contributor to IPS and now with Al-Monitor. The excerpts deal with the threat and prospect of attacking Iran.

MR. HAGEL: …I would add only this:  As to the use of military force whether it’s for a political motive or not, I don’t think I have to remind the public that the United States of America is currently in two wars – two of the longest we’ve ever been in.  And before we finally wind our way out of each, they will be the longest wars we’ve ever engaged in.

That has come at a very significant cost to this country.  I think it’s undermined our interest in the world.  You don’t need to go much beyond asking any general who’s in charge of men and women in the Pentagon, their families, or any metric that you want to apply – record suicides, record divorces, record homeless and all the rest – as to but one consequence of taking the nation to war.
So I think talking about going to war with Iran in fairly specific terms should be carefully reviewed.  And that’s pretty dangerous talk.  It’s easy to get a nation into war; not so easy to get a nation out of war, as we are finding out.  I’m not sure that the American people are ready to go into a third war.
Second, if you subscribe to what Barbara has laid out – at least, what our taskforce has found – in particular, the internal dynamics that are occurring in Iran, then why in the world would you, as Barbara has noted, want to get in the way of that?

We do have some rather significant evidence that sanctions are working.  And they’re working because we – our government, our policies; imperfect, flawed problems; every policy has those.  But nonetheless, it has accomplished something even bigger than sanctions.  And that is they have brought a consensus together of most countries – the European Union, the Chinese are involved, Russians are involved.  We have a rather significant consensus on this issue up to a point.  And I think all you need to do is reflect on the United Nations’ vote on this as a pretty good indicator.
Now, that alone won’t change the dynamics.  But as Barbara – (audio break) – if you subscribe to what our taskforce has come up with, then aren’t we wiser to let this play out?  Aren’t we – (audio break) – wiser, rather to get ourselves into another very difficult predicament because – (audio break) – we do also know that wars have – (audio break) – most of the time and especially – (audio break) – where we live in a day they have unintended consequences.  They have uncontrollable consequences.  We live in an interconnected global – (audio break) – and I think, again, we should factor that in.

Last point I would make: as to the question of, well, but aren’t we just allowing the Iranians to buy time?  Maybe.  We have to recognize that the real world is about risks.  You calibrate your decisions and your policymaking based on that risk analysis.

Is it riskier to go to war right now or is it riskier to pursue the policies that we are pursuing?  Policymakers have to decide that.  They have to sort their way through that and then they come to a decision.  It’s my analysis – and answering your question, Shuja – that it is far riskier to talk of war and to go to war.

As the ambassador has noted, we are the mightiest military force on Earth.  The world has never seen such military power.  But that military power must always be tempered with a purpose.  And the military option is always on the table – of course it is – for any sovereign nation.  But at the same time we recognize that, that option is there.

The leaders of our country, the leaders of the world are not living in an “Alice in Wonderland” type of a world.  They are living in a real world and they have to make real decisions based on what they calculate to be the dynamics and the facts as they are today.  But probably more importantly, what they think they will be.  That’s leadership….”

Q:  Jim Lobe, Inter Press Service.  I’d like to get the comments of all three if possible.  But how exactly does saying that all options are on the table help the U.S. case in human rights or anything else or even with respect to the nuclear program?  (Audio break.)

Assuming what Sen. Hagel was saying is correct, that attacking Iran will have unforeseeable consequences – (audio break) – any observer would conclude might involve – or very much could involve the necessity for ground troops.  How, at this point, can – (audio break) – threat on the part – (audio break) – states and give – (audio break) – two wars?

So, again, my question is – (audio break) – repeatedly saying all options are on the table – (audio break) – help any of the causes that have been laid out or that are of concern to the taskforce?

MR. HAGEL:  Well, I would add this:  I’m not so sure it is necessary to continue to say all options are on the table.  I believe that the leadership in Iran, regardless of the five power centers that you’re referring to – whether it’s the ayatollah or the president or the Republican Guard, the commissions – have some pretty clear understanding of the reality of this issue and where we are.
I think the point that your question really brings out – which is a very good one.  If you were going to threaten on any kind of consistent basis, whether it’s from leadership or the Congress or the administration or anyone who generally speaks for this country in anyway, than you better be prepared to follow through with that.

Now, Stuart noted putting 100,000 troops in Iran – I mean, just as a number as far as if to play this thing out.  The fact is, I would guess that we would all – I would be the one to start the questioning – would ask where you’re going to get 100,000 troops.  (Laughter.)  So your point is a very good one, I think.

I don’t think there’s anybody in Iran that does not question the seriousness of America, our allies or Israel on this for all the reasons we made very clear.  And I do think there does become a time when you start to minimize the legitimacy of a threat.  When you threaten people or you threaten sovereign nations, you better be very careful and you better understand, again, consequences because you may be required to employ that threat and activate that threat in some way.
So I don’t mind people always, as we have laid out, and I think every president and every administration, anybody of any consequence who’s talked about this can say – does say.  But I think it’s implied that the military threat is always there.  Stu made an important point about, there are a lot of ways to come at this.

But once you begin a military operation – I mean, you ask any sergeant – and it’s the sergeants and the guys at the bottom, not the policymakers that have to fight the war – (audio break) – there the ones who have to do all the dying and all the fighting – (audio break) – sacrifices, not the policymakers.

But my point is, once you start that, you’d better be prepared to find 100,000 troops because it may take that or, eventually, where you’re going – my earlier point:  You don’t know.  And you can’t just – (audio break) – concept of, well, we’re going to do this but it’ll be marginalized, it’ll be a limited warfare.  I don’t think any nation can ever go into that way.  So that would be what I would just add to the rest of the other conversations.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.