SPIEGEL Interview with US Senator Chuck Hagel: 'We Have Done Terrible Damage'
Should Barack Obama win in November, many think that Republican Senator -- and Bush critic -- Chuck Hagel could become part of his cabinet. SPIEGEL spoke with him about the current administration's mistakes and the disarray in his own party.
SPIEGEL: Senator Hagel, your friend and Republican presidential candidate John McCain says that the United States Army has a moral obligation to stay in Iraq. Is he right?
Hagel: We have responsibilities, no doubt about it. We invaded Iraq, we are occupying Iraq and we have made Iraq dependent on us. By our actions we have done terrible damage to our own country and undermined our interests in the world.
SPIEGEL: What are the consequences?
Hagel: Our first moral obligation is to our own people whom we keep sending back to Iraq again and again. Four-thousand US soldiers have given their lives, over 30,000 have been wounded, many seriously. I just got an e-mail today from the father of a helicopter pilot. His son is going back to Iraq for the fifth time. That is not acceptable.
SPIEGEL: The question is: Should the US go or should it stay?
Hagel: We need to get out, but responsibly. Much depends on how we are going to engage Iran. That spills over into the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. It spills over into Lebanon. It spills over into the relationship with Syria. We need a regional strategy, and in my view that means a permanent Middle East conference in which all Middle East nations participate. The longer we stay in Iraq, the more difficult it becomes to implement such a process. Many of the Arab nations donít trust us.
SPIEGEL: You would bring back diplomacy? That was certainly not one of the strengths of President George W. Bush.
Hagel: That was a fundamental error. In the end it will be a diplomatic solution that will bring the Iraq War to an end. General David Petraeus has also said that.
SPIEGEL: John McCain clearly places much more emphasis on the military than you do. Are there any further differences?
Hagel: We must engage Iran and reach a point where we can begin to negotiate. I do not see an alternative. What has American involvement accomplished so far? The Middle East is as combustible and as complicated as it has ever been. Our policy has been disastrous. We now must apply all the instruments of power -- diplomatic power is part of that, as is trade and economic development. Certainly the military is a part of that and so is intelligence sharing. We have to build relationships and define common interests. Only then is stability and security possible.
SPIEGEL: You are, then, an advocate of America relying more on soft power than on the military?
Hagel: That's the way we will make progress. We have to use our economic and also our cultural strength. Trust is the crucial currency in international relations. We willfully diminished the value of this currency and we now have to rebuild it. Trust is more important than anything else. North Korea was a part of the Axis of Evil, but now the United States is using the instruments of diplomacy in the Six Party talks.
SPIEGEL: But that would mean that you are closer to Democrat Barack Obama than to your own party as far as foreign policy is concerned?
Hagel: Well, thatís right, but I donít develop my position on foreign policy based on which politicians I support or do not support. I was espousing this position on Iraq and Iran before Obama even got to the Senate.
SPIEGEL: You didnít follow him, he followed you?
Hagel: (laughing) He has accepted my position and my direction.
Hagel: I donít expect to be in anyoneís cabinet. I think I will be on the outside of government.
SPIEGEL: Your name has been mentioned in connection with the offices of Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State in an Obama administration. You don't like such speculation?
Hagel: I appreciate people having confidence in me. But I donít expect to be in any government.
SPIEGEL: What should the Europeans expect from the next American president?
Hagel: Both candidates will have a new approach, more cooperation, a greater emphasis on alliances. Whichever candidate is elected, our European allies will see a president forging a stronger relationship. It was a grave mistake to alienate the allies. Both candidates realize that the challenges today are global and we can only deal with these challenges working together with our allies.
SPIEGEL: And what does America expect from the Europeans? George W. Bush has been an easy president, because it was easy for Europeans not to follow him, for example in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Hagel: A strong America is in the interest of the world. I often meet with foreign leaders and they know that the world is more dangerous when America is stumbling, bumbling and weak. America should lead, but through consensus and common interests.
SPIEGEL: Does the next president owe the Europeans an apology for Americaís solo in Iraq and for belittling the West Europeans as ďold EuropeĒ?
Hagel: I do not think we should relive those times. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is disgraced and gone. Anybody who had anything to do with that is gone. There are books being written about them. Letís go forward.
SPIEGEL: Do you also see a silver lining on the horizon when you look at the US economy? The United States has huge public debt and huge private debt. America consumes the most, but does not export enough. How can the United States restore its economic power?
Hagel: All the points you make are correct. We are the greatest debtor nation in the world. We have an enormous trade deficit. I look at it like a business -- you have a balance sheet: We are by far the largest economy in the world and the most flexible; we have ideas; the debt represents only a very small percentage of our gross domestic product. But you cannot continue to spend $600 billion a year that you do not have. We are spending $3 billion a week in Iraq alone. And we are going to have to do something about our steadily increasing costs for entitlement programs. The European nations have all had to deal with that.
SPIEGEL: What precisely do you want to change?
Hagel: We need to reform Social Security, reduce our costs for prescription drugs. I have submitted legislation in the Senate on every one of these issues.
SPIEGEL: Economically, America today is doubly dependent on China. China finances the enormous trade deficit and China supplies the country with a huge number of vital consumer goods. Is China a rival or a partner?
Hagel: It is the same question you can ask for America and Germany. Are we trade rivals? Yes. Are we partners? Yes. Are there tensions? Yes, there are.
SPIEGEL: You're comparing Germany to China?
Hagel: No. What I am trying to say is that every country has a multitude of dimensions. Foreign relations are always complex. I do not see China as a threat. It is a competitor who could turn out to be dangerous if the relationship is not managed right. If both sides are not attentive they could become, down the road, enemies.
SPIEGEL: It doesnít look good for your own party. After seven years of George W. Bush, 81 percent of Americans believe that the country is on the wrong track and only 27 percent have a favorable view. What went wrong?
Hagel: The party is in terrible shape and it is because we did not do a very good job of managing this country. We have gotten into two wars. We have run up a third of the national debt in the last seven years. So we have controlled the government and we have made a lot of mistakes. All the same, McCain and Obama are within the margin of error in the polls.
SPIEGEL: Is the era of the hawks in your party definitely over?
Hagel: I hope so. That segment of the Republican Party, the so-called neocons, held the Republican Party hostage much of the time. What this element has done to our party is clear now and I would hope that it will come back to the party of Eisenhower, even the party of Ronald Reagan. Todayís party is no longer Ronald Reaganís party, who, contrary to his reputation, governed from the center. But he sat down with the Soviets, the great evil empire, and was able to get results, for example in nuclear disarmament.
SPIEGEL: You write in your new book about former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt visiting you in your office in the Senate, chain-smoking and complaining that ďthere are no more great leaders." Do you agree?
Hagel: Today, I donít see any great global leaders of the stature of Reagan, Kohl, Mitterand and Thatcher. They were important, whether you agreed with them or not. But as Schmidt also told me in my office, there will come a time when we will find those new leaders again.
SPIEGEL: A lot of Germans hope Obama is that someone.
Hagel: He could be. But until he is in office, you donít know.
Interview conducted by Cordula Meyer and Gabor Steingart
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