A Conversation with Chuck Hagel


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By David Duesing, MPP 2018

The Kennedy School was honored to host a conversation between former Secretary of Defense and two-term Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel and Peabody award-winning news reporter and Institute of Politics Resident Fellow Ann Compton in the JFK Jr. Forum on Tuesday, November 1, 2016.

Secretary Hagel did not mince words in responding to Compton’s opening question of what the current state of American politics says about our nation, claiming that “we have offended America and befuddled the world,” letting the vilification of our presidential candidates create an election where swaths of voters are voting against their opposing candidate more so than for their own. In spite of his perspective on contemporary politics in the U.S., Secretary Hagel stated that the country is “much better than what the world is seeing,” and that he maintains confidence that the partisan antagonism and legislative stagnation of Washington will “get turned around.”

Turning the conversation towards international relations, Compton asked Secretary Hagel about foreign countries’ impressions of the U.S. and how to improve them, to which Secretary Hagel recounted that he has yet to encounter a foreign leader who is not in some state of concern regarding the state of U.S. politics. This being the case, it will be essential, according to Secretary Hagel, that the next president make the effort to travel to foreign countries and establish personal connections with foreign leaders so as to maintain healthy bilateral relationships, including with Russia. The former Secretary of Defense specifically called upon the next president to conduct a tour of various European and Asian countries soon after assuming office, culminating in a personal meeting with Vladimir Putin with the goal of finding common interests with the Russian president regarding Syria and ISIS. This in turn would allow the U.S. to work in conjunction with Russia to resolve the myriad problems confronting Syria and its people.

In discussing his thoughts on President Obama’s response to the Syrian civil war, Secretary Hagel sympathized with the President’s deliberate efforts to avoid entering into another war in the Middle East, but he urged that the next president be ready to address Syria, since, according to Secretary Hagel, “The longer this fiasco in the Middle East goes, the worse it’ll be for everyone.” Secretary Hagel urged that efforts to resolve the problems of the Middle East be led by Middle Eastern countries, and that world leaders focus on who could replace Bashar al-Assad should he lose power.

Regarding working with President Obama, Secretary Hagel spoke openly about his respect for the President in spite of their differences in political ideology, though he criticized the administration for not working to bring the two parties closer together in Congress. When asked by a member of the audience what qualities he values most in a president, Secretary Hagel cited three traits—character, courage and judgment. Secretary Hagel said he has seen these qualities in President Obama, as well as Presidents Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

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