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Interview With Chuck Hagel

Aired August 31, 2002 - 17:30   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: I'm Robert Novak. Al Hunt and I will question a leading Republican critic of the Bush administration foreign policy.
AL HUNT, CO-HOST: He is Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.


HUNT (voice-over): Vice President Dick Cheney, addressing the Veterans of Foreign War Convention in Nashville, called for a preemptive strike against Iraq to oust Saddam Hussein.

RICHARD CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If the United States could have preempted 9/11, we would have, no question. Should we be able to prevent another, much more devastating attack? We will, no question. This nation will not live at the mercy of terrorists or terror regimes.

HUNT: The vice president spoke again a few days later addressing Korean War veterans in San Antonio and added a note of reassurance about President Bush's course.

CHENEY: I know that he will proceed cautiously and deliberately to consider all possible options to deal with the threat that Iraq, ruled by Saddam Hussein, represents.

HUNT: Meanwhile, the senior Republican of the Senate Arms Services Committee, John Warner of Virginia, called for Pentagon officials to testify on national security implications of an attack on Iraq.

Chuck Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War combat veteran, is a noncommissioned officer working in both government and the private sector before being elected to the Senate in 1996 in his first attempt at elected office.


HUNT: Senator, you have worried that the administration has not made the case for taking out Saddam Hussein. Dick Cheney tried to do that this week. Did he succeed?

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), NEBRASKA: Well, I think to be fair to the president, and we must, we must understand that I don't think the president has, in his time frame -- and I don't know what his time frame is -- has, in fact, chosen to make the case. The vice president's comments, as you have noted here, I think, are following a pattern that most likely are, at least in the White House eyes, are positioning the president to, at some point, make that case.

Now, I note that the president is scheduled to speak to the United Nations General Assembly, I believe sometime in mid-September, maybe the day after September 11. I would suspect that he then will lay out, at that point, the case to invade Iraq.

The question that I've had, and I'm not the only one that has had these questions, I think are very serious. For example, if, in fact, we unilaterally invade Iraq with no allies, where does that lead to? Where does that go? Who governs after Saddam? How do we do it? When do we do it? What is the objective? Have we calibrated the consequences -- unintended consequences?

We have, right now, a front open in Afghanistan and Central Asia. We have a very dangerous situation in Israel. We have, in India and Pakistan and South Asia, probably the most dangerous time we have seen yet. And there's no guesswork here: Each of those countries possess nuclear weapons, the capability to deliver those weapons, and they don't like each other.

These questions are very important, it seems to me, that the president wants to address -- I hope will address -- before we talk about unilaterally with no allies invading Iraq.

HUNT: Well, the alternative, of course, would be to try to do something with allies and go to the United Nations and try to continue the inspectors -- or resume, rather, the inspectors. And here's what Vice President Cheney said that would mean this week. Let's look for a minute at what the vice president said.


CHENEY: Saddam has perfected the game of cheat and retreat. The return of inspectors would provide no assurance whatsoever of his compliance. On the contrary, there's a great danger that it would provide false comfort.


HUNT: Do you agree with the vice president on inspectors?

HAGEL: I agree with Jim Baker and Larry Eagleburger and Brent Scowcroft and General Schwarzkopf and General Zinni and General Hoar (ph). These are men who all were involved in the architecture of the very successful 1991 Persian Gulf War. And the point they have been continuing to make is, run the diplomatic high ground first. Be part of the United Nations efforts here.

We forget that 1991 was not a United-States-against-Iraq issue. It was a United-Nations-against-Iraq. It was the force of the United Nations and almost every nation in the world, including almost every nation in the Middle East, being with us here. And that is a very significant factor here that I think is being glossed over and left out. Not just a military allied effort to be part of any military invasion is part of it, but the diplomatic high ground here is important.

The other part I think we lose here is, diplomacy is important, not because it is an alternative to a military option, but it is a compliment to a military option. You want to enhance your position in the world with allies and relationships.

If we're going to win a war on terrorism, you can't do that alone. It's going to take intelligence and relationships and positioning. And sure, the military is always an option. But run the diplomatic track first. Then you enhance your position diplomatically and bring allies with you, if you need to use the military option.

NOVAK: Senator Hagel, let's go back to the vice president's two speeches, and exactly what they were. Do you think -- are you suggesting they might have been trial balloons to see how they go over before the president acts, and not finished administration policy?

HAGEL: Bob, I can hardly believe that the vice president of the United States would go out and make two very declaratory defining war speeches on why we must invade Iraq, unilaterally if we must, without the knowledge and the approval of the president of the United States. Maybe that is the case. If that is the case, then we are probably all in a lot more trouble than we know.

But I can't believe then that this is a vice president who's off on his own making these kinds of speeches. I think it's part of an orchestrated effort to probably position the president to, when he is ready to make his case, come before the Congress, which he must do, and I understand that they've agreed they will do. His speech to the United Nations in September, my guess is, will be to lay this out.

NOVAK: Well, CNN is reporting that Secretary of State Powell says he was blind-sided by this speech. How does that figure into this mix?

HAGEL: Well, you'd have to ask Secretary Powell or someone else.

NOVAK: Well, what do you think?

HAGEL: I again say that I cannot imagine the vice president of the United States giving those two speeches that you showed there in the last few minutes without the approval of the president of the United States. I have to believe that this is part of some larger plan here. Those were very important speeches.

And by the way, August is the month for all veterans organizations to have their annual conventions. I think this was very preordained and prepositioned, and this was the beginning of a rollout public-relations strategy in the United States that will roll into September before the United Nations.

HUNT: To follow up on Bob, though, do you think (inaudible) is then a unified administration position? Do you think the secretary of state and Mr. Armitage have signed on to this policy also? HAGEL: Again, you'd have to ask Secretary Armitage.

HUNT: But you're a senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and you have knowledge, I'm sure, about how people feel about these important matters.

HAGEL: Well, all I can tell you is that they are part of an administration, and either they're on the team or they're not on the team.

Now, internal discussion and debate is always required in these matters, and rarely do you have situations where, especially if we are talking about going to war, that everybody is going to agree. You remember the Reagan days, the battles -- internal battles between Schultz and Weinberger. That's just the way it is.

But they are all one administration, and if they can't agree with whatever the strategy or the plan is, then they'll resign, I suspect. But I don't think that's going to happen, and I think that they have made their case. I don't know where it all is. They continue to make their case.

And that case, as I understand it, at least what I've heard from Secretary Powell and Armitage through their comments, is, number one, Iraq, Saddam Hussein specifically, is a threat. He is a threat. We can't minimize that. But the tougher questions are, how do you deal with him, and the consequences of dealing with him.

For example, I received a letter yesterday from Jim Webb. I think everyone knows Jim Webb.

NOVAK: Former secretary of the Navy.

HAGEL: Yes. One of the most highly decorated Vietnam veterans in that war. I don't think anyone has ever labeled Jim Webb a dove. He's a pretty tough guy, pretty hawkish guy.

He, in that letter, said to me, "Senator" -- I don't think he'll mind if I take one part of it and relay this, because it is, I think, apropos to our discussion -- "has anyone thought through, if we invade, how long we would be there? How many years it would take to help" -- I know this administration doesn't like the terminology of "nation-build," but of course that's what we're doing in Afghanistan. "How long would it take Americans to be in Baghdad, military presence, the cost of that not only in life but treasure, prestige, consequences of terrorism, turn maybe the entire Muslim world against us if we don't do it right." The Turks are concerned about that. The young king in Jordan is concerned about that. Every Arab nation is concerned about that. Musharraf talked about it this last week. You know, General Musharraf, who's pretty important to us right now, said, "If you unilaterally go in and invade Iraq, you will destabilize the entire Muslim population in that area." Now, we better be listening carefully to our allies.

NOVAK: Senator, I want to get one more question before we take a break. The whole burden of the vice president's speech is that we have to act now because he is developing nuclear weapons. There is a dissenting opinion on that, that he is nowhere near developing nuclear weapons.

You get a lot of briefings. Who's right on that? Are they developing nuclear weapons or not?

HAGEL: Bob, I think you always must take the worst-case scenario in a situation like this, and you must always just assume the worst, especially with Saddam Hussein.

But I don't have all the information, and I don't question that certainly the administration has a lot of intelligence. I get a lot of intelligence briefings; a lot of my colleagues do.

NOVAK: So what's your bottom line?

HAGEL: My bottom line is that I don't think he does possess nuclear capability. Is he attempting to do that? You have to assume he is. But to scare the American public by saying this guy is a couple of months away from not only possessing nuclear weapons but a ballistic missile to deliver those, that's dangerous stuff here.

Now, he is a problem. He is a threat. We're going to have to deal with him. That isn't the issue. The issue is how, when, where, with whom. And then the big, big question: Who comes after him? Do we further destabilize our efforts in the Middle East and in Central and South Asia if we do this alone?

NOVAK: We're going to take a break, Senator.

When we come back, we'll ask Chuck Hagel how Israel fits into the Iraqi decision.


HUNT: Senator Hagel, several times you've mentioned that we ought to examine what a post-Saddam Iraq would look like. The vice president said he would envision a post-Saddam Iraq that would be a democracy, that would respect human rights.

Tell us what you think that would take -- what kind of a U.S. involvement, what kind of resources, and for how long?

HAGEL: Well, that objective is noble and right, and we should always as this country has always stood for human dignity and human rights. And that is the foundation of who we are as a people and is the foundation of our foreign policy.

That said, within that mix, this is a complicated world. It isn't just so easy, never is it easy to just state it and then think that Jeffersonian democrats are going to appear in Iraq when Saddam Hussein is gone, or anywhere else.

HUNT: What do you think it would take as far as money and time? Do you have any sense of that? HAGEL: Well, first of all, you have to be realistic to understand that there is no tradition generally in the Middle East, other than Israel being a democracy, for this form of government. We should enhance that in every way we can with our resources, and we have been over the years in many administrations. And we can do that, and we should do that.

But I think we must be realistic enough not to mislead the American public or anyone to say just if Saddam Hussein was gone, then we could install a republic, we can install a real democracy. Well, there's no opposition force to speak of there, there's no alternative government there, there's no Northern Alliance there.

And you began this segment talking a little bit about the Israeli piece (ph). Now, I have believed, and I'm not an expert on any of this, but when you just look at the geopolitics of that region, you begin with Jordan. Jordan is a very, very strategically key country to the long-term interests of Israel. Why? Because it is the buffer country between Israel and the most hostile Arab nations and neighbors in that area that Israel has.

You could set something in motion here that we have to be very careful with that could undermine the young king there, that could in fact overthrow the young king, Abdullah, who is a very good leader. And that further jeopardizes Israel, and the other dynamics start to play into that.

NOVAK: But I understand the prime minister of Israel, General Sharon, has told your committee, the Foreign Relations Committee, in closed session, that a U.S. attack, removing Saddam Hussein, would undermine the Palestinian terrorists. Do you agree with that? Is that so? And do you agree with it?

HAGEL: Well, I think you always have to listen to an elected prime minister of Israel. He lives there. That's been his world. That's not mine. That's not my colleagues'. So you have to listen to the credibility and the experience of people like General Sharon, now Prime Minister Sharon.

But there are other voices on this in Israel. One is the retired three-star army general, Mitzna, who is the current mayor of Haifa, who is challenging Ben-Eliezer for the Labor Party leadership. And if he is successful, then that obviously would threaten the Sharon government. The elections will be held, we know, in Israel next year sometime in the fall. If the Labor Party would pull out of that Sharon coalition government they would most likely be held before that.

So my point is this, Bob. There is not only the Sharon perspective on this. I think the Sharon perspective is not, in my opinion, comprehensive in that I don't think he's factoring in all these other dynamics that are out there. And that cannot, in my opinion, be in the best interest of Israel.

NOVAK: Marine General Zinni, the State Department envoy in the Middle East, made a speech in Florida, an outspoken speech, last Friday, where he said the U.S. -- participation in the peace process, Israeli-Palestinian, should be on the top of the U.S. agenda. Do you agree with that?

HAGEL: Well, I think it must be always in the top strata.

NOVAK: It isn't now, is it?

HAGEL: Well, I don't know if it is or not, but I think we have backed off of that too much in the Middle East effort. The president's speech in June was a good set of principles, but there was nothing there to bolt it together. There was no vehicle, no structure.

And you can't say -- I don't think -- you can't say to the Palestinians and the Arabs, "Well, you go become a Jeffersonian democracy, then come back and talk to us." Both sides are going to have to work many parallel tracks here. And by the way, Secretary Powell's talked about this in some detail.

NOVAK: OK. We have to take another break, and when we come back, we'll have the Big Question for Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.


NOVAK: The Big Question for Senator Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska:

Senator, General Zinni, in his speech, noted that the biggest war hawks are men who have never worn the uniform. Do you believe that having worn the uniform, as you did, should be a qualification for talking about this subject, whether we go to war?

HAGEL: No, I don't think it should be a qualification, but I think we should listen carefully to those who have been in war, experienced the horrors and suffering of war, the consequences of war. Certainly, General Zinni, General Schwarzkopf, General Powell, General Scowcroft, General Joseph Hoar (ph) all have. And I put a premium on that experience, just like I put a premium on the experience of any of my colleagues who have a particular set of skills or experiences in medicine or in agriculture.

It's not just left to the purview of the former warrior or experienced veteran, but we better listen carefully to those people who have seen war.

HUNT: Are you struck by the fact that most of the vocal proponents have never worn the uniform or have never seen combat, at least? And what does that say?

HAGEL: Well, that point has been made a couple of times. I think there should be some perspective brought to anything as serious as committing young men and women to war, because people lose their lives and then there are consequences to that.

Should it be left only to those who served in war? No. But there might be some conclusion we can draw from the fact that those who have suffered war and seen war, the ugliness, cruelty of war, are the ones who are urging caution here.

HUNT: Senator Hagel, thank you very much.

We're going to take a break right now, but Robert Novak and I will be back in just a moment with a comment or two.


HUNT: Bob, if Vice President Cheney is hoping those two tough Iraq speeches this week was to quell any kind of dissent within the Republican Party, it didn't work. Chuck Hagel was as vocal, as vehement with his reservations about the administration's Iraq policy as ever.

NOVAK: But Senator Hagel is assuming that this was the administration policy, not the vice president going off on his own. He said we'd really be in trouble if that were the case. However, he left ambiguous, where in the world does Colin Powell stand in this very tough affirmation of Iraqi policy.

HUNT: Intentionally, I believe, Bob. You know, for reasons that I think are irrational, Chuck Hagel is persona non grata among many in this administration. However, he remains pretty close to what Colin Powell and his deputy, Rich Armitage, who I think have terrible reservations about this. And we'll have to see if they act on those reservations.

NOVAK: Chuck Hagel is no John McCain. He's a regular Republican. He votes the conservative line. And I think it's distressing for him when he has to say, which shocked me, that the president's policy on Israel has no basis and no form to it. That was very tough criticism.

I'm Robert Novak.

HUNT: And I'm Al Hunt.

Coming up at 7:00 p.m. Eastern on "Capital Gang," the vice president tries to drum up support for a strike against Iraq, is the FBI turning former government scientist Steven Hatfill into another Richard Jewell, and a Labor Day weekend newsmaker of the week, labor leader Andy Stern. Our guest is former Clinton chief of staff John Podesta.

NOVAK: That's all for now. Thanks for joining us.




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