January 28, 2016
Reflections of a Former Secretary of Defense
Reflections of a Former Secretary of Defense
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense
President and CEO,
Location: Atlantic Council, Washington, D.C.
Date: Monday, January 13, 2016
Superior Transcriptions LLC
FREDERICK KEMPE: Welcome, everyone. This is a very special evening at the Atlantic Council. I'm Fred Kempe, president and CEO. And it's my profound pleasure to welcome you all to this special event, Reflections of a Former Secretary of Defense, with Chuck Hagel, the 24th U.S. Secretary of Defense.
The title of this session suggests exactly what we intend, a combination of oral history with Secretary Hagel, dealing with many of the key aspects and events of his tenure at the Pentagon, along with observations on his part to provide context and significance to those events. We'll start with an extended conversation first between the two of us, and then we'll turn to the audience for questions. And, Secretary Hagel, I see a lot of familiar faces out there in the audience. I'm not sure if that's a good thing.
CHUCK HAGEL: I may owe them – I may owe them money, I don't know, or some old bar bill. (Laughter.) No, it's particularly unnerving to have Senator John Warner in the front row, because he knows the truth. (Laughter.) It's an honor to see you, Senator Warner, one of the finest United States Senators this country has ever had, and leader of our country in so many ways. So, John, thank you for coming. (Applause.)
MR. KEMPE: Senator Warner, even after that compliment, you are welcome to ask an impertinent question if you would like. (Laughter.)
I want to thank Secretary Hagel first of all for coming to the Atlantic Council for his first extended public on-the-record event since he left office almost a year ago now. And as you all know, aside from being the first enlisted soldier and the first Vietnam veteran to serve as secretary of defense, he was also co-chairman of the president's Intelligence Advisory Board, a two-term U.S. Senator. He served in the administrations of three presidents – President Reagan, President George H.W. Bush, and of course President Obama.
He headed many organizations, including the USO, was an accomplished business leader, decorated Vietnam War veteran with two Purple Hearts, and of course, most important of all of that, he was chairman of the Atlantic Council for four years – (laughter) – from 2009 to 2013, which was a time of incredible growth and transformation of the Atlantic Council. And Mr. Chairman, Mr. Secretary, it was great fun working with you during those years. He now serves at the Atlantic Council as a distinguished statesman, a member of our International Advisory Board, and a member of the Advisory Council of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Knowing your own modesty, Secretary Hagel, and with the audience's forbearance, I'd like to briefly review some of your accomplishments in office to set up the context for our conversation. You led the Pentagon during what I think it's fair to say was one of the more tumultuous and challenging periods for U.S. defense and foreign policy, and you provided steady leadership throughout, reinvigorating alliances and partnerships in the Middle East and Asia, certainly in Europe as well but there was a lot going on in the Mideast and Asia during that time, setting in motion institutional reforms, and working to ensure our troops and their families got the support that they had earned, and get the support that they have earned.
You were the first secretary of defense in nearly two decades to simultaneously face the reality of shrinking budgets and growing demand for U.S. military support around the world. And we will talk about that. You get a feeling for the secretary's challenges when you consider that sequestration went into effect on his third day in office, forcing the furlough of civilian employees and stand-down of units around the world. And I think we'll talk some about that. Also, in his first day in office – first days in office, North Korea ratcheted up provocations. One of your first decisions was to increase ground-based interceptors in Alaska to protect the homeland. You prioritized the Asian-Pacific rebalance with six trips to that region, and we'll talk about that too, particularly in light of North Korea's nuclear test last week.
You faced Russia's annexation of Crimea on March 18th, 2014. You had tough conversations with Russia's minister of defense, directed a series of measures to reassure NATO allies, and were an early advocate of providing defensive weapons to Ukraine. So we'll get to that as well. You led the development of U.S. military strategy against ISIL in both Syria and Iraq. And back in August of 2014, only weeks after Daesh declared itself a caliphate, you were ahead of the White House and many others in recognizing ISIS dangers. Finally, you were a strong advocate for humanitarian intervention to prevent the slaughter of thousands of innocent Yazidis, Iraqis and Kurds. You brought together Gulf countries this past April for the first U.S.-GCC defense meeting in over five years, you had more than 40 calls to then-Field Marshall al-Sisi, as you sustained and stabilized the U.S.-Egyptian relationship. This just scratches the surface of the challenges you face and the actions you took. So let's get started.
Let' start with – maybe, you'll forgive me, you always had to forgive me as a recovering newsman when I was – when we worked together. But there is some news from Iran today. And you would have had to handle that over at the Pentagon as secretary of defense, as 10 of our sailors were detained – released today. How would you have handled that? How would you have looked at that?
MR. HAGEL: Well, Fred, first thank you. And thanks to the Atlantic Council for an opportunity to exchange some thoughts. I valued my time here and my association still with this institution because I think it is one of the most relevant institutions in this town, with a reach around the world that's rather significant. And I think the importance of this institution and all of you who have been involved and are involved, your involvement will continue to be, I think, particularly important. And, Fred, thanks for your leadership.
To your question, first, I don't know what all the facts are. I am, like now most of you, a mere mortal. I don't have all the intelligence and information that I once had. But based on what I do know, first, we're very pleased, obviously, that our sailors were released when they were released. From what I know, the commitment the Iranian government made to Secretary Kerry was honored, they were released this morning.
Second, I suspect there will be a full investigation, and there needs to be, on what happened, why did it happen. Was this a mechanical issue? Was there more to it than that? Obviously as I just left my office to come over here this afternoon I noticed new footage on television showing those sailors on their knees with their hands behind their heads with the guards pointing machine guns at them. So that will be explored as well. So there are a lot of pieces that we need to understand. We don't have any of those pieces yet, as far as I know. We will get those. But in the interest of our sailors, in the interest of our country, it's good news that our sailors are out of there.
Second, on this particular point, I have supported strongly and helped shape the Iranian nuclear negotiations.
MR. KEMPE: And you were the co-chair here with Stu Eizenstat of our Iran Task Force. I see Barbara Slavin here who's been leading that. So you were early on working on these issues.
MR. HAGEL: Barbara was very involved. That's right. And I think what happened 24 hours ago in Iran, or off the coast at Farsi Island did very much put in jeopardy the future of that agreement, with this weekend being the beginning of the unraveling of those sanctions. And if that would not have been handled by the Iranians the way it was, with what we do know, then I think there would have been a real question whether the unraveling of those sanctions would have gone forward.
MR. KEMPE: Just on the date of the State of the Union.
MR. HAGEL: On the day of the State of the Union. So let me leave it at that, Fred, because I really don't know any more than most of you do. But if had been secretary of defense I'm sure, just as Secretary Carter is doing and will do, as well as our chief of naval operations and all of our senior leaders at the Pentagon and in the White House and State Department, we will get the answers to these questions.
MR. KEMPE: So let's start big and broad and then we'll work down into some of the specific issues. So you know, we at the Atlantic Council talk a lot about this being a defining moment in history, maybe as important as the end of World War I, World War II, the end of the Cold War. How did that look from the inside? How did the world look from the inside of the Pentagon? Maybe in that context also, what surprised you in the job?
MR. HAGEL: Fred, everyone in this room knows that we, the world, seven billion now global citizens living in a global community, underpinned by a global economy, are building a new world order. We are defining a new world. And that is the result of history, but specifically it's the result of the greatest diffusion of economic power in the history of man, the result of technology exploding that now gives more people and more nations, and non-nation players, new possibilities, new opportunities, both for good and bad. Demographics are shifting dramatically. Resource requirements, environmental issues, are now coming into play at about the same time. So we've got to recognize first that this new world order is being defined, it's being shaped, and it's being built.
Second, the world order that existed, that the United States and its allies built in that 10-year period after World War II, really has done pretty well for the world. We have made mistakes. It's been imperfect, but there's been no World War III, there's been no nuclear exchange. And I think by any metric that we would want to apply to mankind, I think we can say, because of health care, more opportunities for freedom, dignity, possibilities, education, technological advances, that in many ways it's a better world.
So we have to factor all of that in with what's going on in the world today, the crises. There's another part of this that I think cuts to your question, Fred – from what I say from the inside as secretary of defense, also before that as I was, you noted, co-chairman of the president's intelligence board for four years and the Senate for 12 years on the Intelligence Committee and Foreign Relations Committee – is that as the world has progressed, that has led to more and new expectations by more people – expectations in what they believe their right are for what kind of world and life they should have.
Communications has changed everything. Technology has changed everything. That's good, by the way. Sure, it presents more challenges, but I think that's good because isn't that what the United States and the West have strived to do after World War II in building institutions that we've built after World War II, institutions of common interest, these coalitions of common interest, that were meant to find the common denominators of all of our interests and build our relationships on those. That's meant a world of allies and relationships. And I think those relationships, allies, alliances, partnerships are going to be more important as we go deeper into the 21st century than we ever have.
I saw that very up close, Fred, in the two years I spent as secretary of defense. And it's what I had seen as I had been part of seeing the kind of world that we were in and thinking about what kind of world are we going to have and what kind of a world is ahead for all of us. As to your question on surprises, I don't know if there was any one defining surprise or big surprise, but I would answer your question this way: It did reinforce in the two years that I was secretary of defense how unpredictable and volatile the world is. And as one of my predecessors, Secretary Rumsfeld, talked about, the unknowns.
You can always count on the unknowns to factor into governance and relationships and what's next. And that means as a leader you don't put together a group of fortune tellers every week. But as a leader, you've got to build margins for those unpredictable and those unknowns, and uncontrollables. And that's the other thing I think that is – not surprised me, Fred, but it really hit home with me. The uncontrollables now that we face in the world. The United States is by far, by any measurement, the most dominant country on Earth, starting with the economies. There's no country close to us.
But that doesn't mean the United States can or will, or certainly should, dictate or impose or occupy or invade. We work with allies. We work around the common interests that we focused on after World War II. But now there are more uncontrollables I think than we have ever seen. Last point I'd make, most people in this room – most people in America, the 330 million Americans, were born during World War II or after World War II. What does that mean? Well, what that means is that – and I was born right – 1946, right after World War II, when my father came home from World War II.
That our expectations, our world has been a world that America has completely dominated in every way – in every way. And we've made some big mistakes too, by not being responsible with our power. I think we've done far more good in the world than any nation in history, but we have to face the fact that we have blundered into some big mistakes because we didn't pay attention and we didn't listen and we didn't reach down and try to understand a culture of another nation, or another group of people. That's made us wiser, Fred. And I think it will enhance us as we go forward.
MR. KEMPE: We're trying in our Scowcroft Center for International Security to talk a lot about what is America's role in this world. And I know you've given that a lot of thought and you had to put it into practice. But when you see – whether it's ISIS in the Middle East, or whether it's the Ukraine situation with Russia, or whether it's China in the South China Sea – there's just a proliferation of challenges. But there isn't a proliferation of resources. And so as you're sitting there, and you're thinking about it – and then we'll drill down on some of these specific issues – but in a general sense, America's role in the world now as compared to the Cold War, pre-World War II, how do you see America's role in shaping this new order that you're talking about?
MR. HAGEL: First, I think it's clear to me – and again, reinforced by two years as secretary of defense – that America's leadership in the world is really indispensable. And I say that, by the way, as an America who had great pride in his country, but I say that also as an American with great humility. And Americans need to be humble about this. We are really, truly the indispensable nation. Now, that doesn't mean we can fix every problem, not at all. And we have to be very careful and deliberate in thinking through this. But there is no other country in the world that can bring nations together, or alliances together, or formations together. And people do rely on our leadership.
Our leadership is really, in my opinion, critical. And so your question about America's role in the world, I think we need to stay engaged and reach out and not be afraid of other nations becoming productive, successful, their economies growing – after all, that's what we have espoused, because that leads us to some conclusion, it's flawed, I get it. But that conclusion is, the more stability in the world, the more peace in the world, the more prosperity for everyone in the world. Now, people could say, well, but that's kind of the – that's a pretty optimistic view of the world. Well, that's true. And I am an optimist – I think a realist as well.
But the fact is, stability – global stability – is essential for all of us to survive, not just prosper. And without America's leadership and our role in that – our role in the world, I don't think it happens. I don't think it can happen. And so that's where I would start in answer to your question about America's role in the world. I would also add that we've got to adjust more to the realities of other nations prospering, where they're going, their expectations – their expectations, which I noted earlier.
If you just look at the straight demographics of the world today, they are dramatically shifting in different directions. And when you look at especially the trouble spots in the world – and we have many professionals here who have spent their whole lives in some of these areas, and some of our American ambassadors and generals who are here. Ryan Crocker I see in the front row, Frank Ricciardone, there are others here who have spent their entire lifetimes and professions in this business. It's dramatic, what's shifting.
And so we have to adapt to that in our role in the world. That doesn't mean we retreat from the world. That doesn't mean we forfeit our position or our values. But I've always kept in mind something that Henry Kissinger said years ago, and that is when he was talking about democracy. And we've got to be careful that we don't think our Western, or specifically U.S. democracy, is the only democracy, and therefore we impose it, we fit it into your country no matter what your history is, no matter what your culture is. Can't do that.
And what he used to say, and still does, and I remember him saying this once in a speech, that we should foster democracies, but they have to be attuned to regional, specific demographic democracies that we've got to help countries develop their own democracies and their systems of government. And the fact is, when you look at our democracy, our Congress, our Constitution, it is different from any other constitution in the world. And the British have one that's different. The French do. The Germans do. Everyone has a little different take.
But the common dynamic to this is respect for all, dignity for all, freedom for all, freedom of choice, freedom of initiative, and value of hard work, and education, and skill sets, also and responsibility – responsibility for who are and what we produce and the role that we have in the world. So that's the way I would address that general question.
MR. KEMPE: So let's get a little bit more specific into the Obama administration and how it's dealing with this really complex and confounding world that one has to wrestle with. A few days ago, foreign policy published a – the results of an extended interview with you. But I think for us, who really worry about American execution of foreign policy, there was one quote in the piece that was – from you – that was a little troubling. And it was –
MR. HAGEL: There's only one? That's good. (Laughter.)
MR. KEMPE: There were a number that were troubling. (Laughs.)
MR. HAGEL: It depends on whose interpretation.
MR. KEMPE: (Laughs.) But the quote that I saw, that I picked out, is you said: For one thing, there were too many meetings. We kept deferring the tough decisions. And there were always too many people in the room. What one read in that piece was a description of micromanagement, meddling. Your predecessors, Secretary Gates and Panetta pointed to this as well. I wonder if you can talk about that a little bit. And is this unique – is this really any different than the Nixon White House? And essentially, how did you experience that, and what dangers lie in this?
MR. HAGEL: Well, Fred, I'm not going to cover the same ground I covered in the Foreign Policy article. And if anyone wants to read it – if they haven't, they can certainly go back and read it.
But let me get to the more, I think, specific point in those remarks, or at least my intent and what I saw. Let's start with your point about don't all administrations try to dominate their Cabinets and their government? Yes, as far as I know. I haven't been in all of them, and haven't been around for all of them. But I've known every president since Richard Nixon. And I've known most of all of their top people. Many of these administrations I've worked with either in or out of government. Doesn't make me an expert on anything. John Warner and others know a lot more than I've known and have had more experiences.
But I probably have had my share, at least enough to draw some conclusions. So, yes, this administration's no different from past administrations. But what's dangerous is – to me – is as successive administrations take office, at least my sense of this is – as I've witnessed it and seen it from the inside in working with the administration, especially the last few – each successive administration tries to dominate more. And why that is not healthy for our government and our country, to start with, is it cuts into the very fiber of governing. Governing is not dominating. It's just the opposite. It's just the opposite. You don't govern by dominating.
A president has tremendous assets and abilities and forums. I mean, we treat our presidents more royally than royalty treats its royalty in the world, which has always been a bit perplexing to me. I mean, we tried to get away from King George – not King George Bush, but King George of England – (laughter) – but – you can never be too clear in this town, by the way. (Laughter.) But the point is, it's dangerous to governance because, like any institution, you need good people and you need to trust good people. If you don't think they're good people, if you don't trust them, you shouldn't have asked them to come in to start with.
But you must rely on the good people to govern with you. You're the president. You're the White House. Everything flows in an administration – some of you in this room who have worked in administrations know that the two most important jobs in any president's administration, not secretary of defense, not secretary of state, but the chief of staff to the president and the national security advisor. Why do I say that? And by the way, those are two jobs that are not Senate-confirmed. Everything flows from those two jobs.
Secretary of defense, secretary of state, other secretaries, they don't make policy. I mean, we have responsibilities in our own areas. But we're essentially operators of what the president wants of his policy. Now, we have a seat at the table to try to influence that, absolutely. But certainly Defense doesn't make policy. It implements and executes policy, it has to, if nothing else, to follow our Constitution. But all the directives, everything – all the policy is made out of the White House. So your chief of staff and your national security advisor control that process.
And when you dominate departments and you dominate agencies and you dominate the very people that you count on, you rely on to execute policy, then you are really impeding your own ability to govern. And you have to, I think, also understand that governing is not just for a president. In our system of government, because we have three co-equal branches of government, is not about just everything the president says, not about just the executive. You do have to work very closely with the Congress.
Now, I know that's not easy. I've been on both sides of that. I get that. Our founders didn't intend it to be easy. Our founders didn't intend legislation to get through Congress easily, as John Warner and others know. They made it difficult for good reason. And our Constitution has saved this country over the years many, many bad decisions and many, many bad legislative pieces. It's to cooperate. That's leadership. That's governance. You cooperate. You work with. You trust your people.
Secretary of defense, when people say – they come up to me and I'm flattered and I appreciate it – it was a privilege to serve under you. Nobody served under me. I was secretary of defense. I had the overall responsibility of that department. But in the Defense Department, you have empires within empires. And you have to understand how you have to work with each of those empires. And if you don't do that, then you will fail. You will fail the president. You'll fail your country. You'll fail the security of our nation if you don't do that.
So your question about why I said some of what I said, yeah, it was frustrating and I didn't think it was good, and the long meetings, just kind of the recycling of issues, too many people – you get too many people in a room it's chaos. It always is. And everybody wants to talk and everybody wants to explain how smart they are. And always there's the reason why you can't do anything. But, what if? Well, you can "what if" yourself right out of business or right out of every decision. I've always thought about human nature – and really we all start with – we're all people first. We all have weaknesses. We all have strengths.
I've always believed that you can talk yourself into anything and you can talk yourself out of anything. And that's where I always start with myself, with people – not that I've been successful at that in my life necessarily. But at least I think I've understood that. And I try to always factor that in. So let me start there and if you want to follow up on it go ahead.
MR. KEMPE: Yeah, at the expense of belaboring it, I don't want to – you know, I don't want to go back to do the whole Foreign Policy article. But I think this is an important point. Is it your view that president of the United States is being ill-served by the way in which the White House is micromanaging the departments?
MR. HAGEL: Fred, you're talking like a journalist now. (Laughter.) A quick yes or no kind of answer. But I'll answer it this way, I think I actually kind of covered it in my answer. But the only thing I would add to what I said is you also recognize – you have to recognize that every president of the United States is faced with huge issues and huge challenges. And it goes back to what I said earlier in my earlier comments about the uncontrollables, the unknowables, the complications, and so on. So on a good day, it's a tough day for any president because of the world it's in.
So presidents have to do what they have to do based on what's most comfortable for them, how can they work best inside their own administration. Every president has their own style. And I think each president learns as they go along. So, again, I would just rely on the answer I already gave to your question about governance overall, because if you want to bring in the best people – you're not going to get the best people if they think that they're going to be constantly second-guessed, overloaded with micromanagement, and all the rest that goes into that, or their time wasted at endless meetings. You're just not going to get the quality you need to help you, the president, govern the country at a difficult time. And every president is faced with huge issues, and big issues, difficult issues.
MR. KEMPE: Thank you. And let's go through a few issues – quite a list here to go through, so we'll go through them relatively quickly. The budget – I mentioned in the opening that you confronted sequestration right in your first week. How much time and energy did you have to spend on budget issues? And then I guess the question that grows out of that is does the U.S., in your view, have the budget, and as a result the military forces that it needs right now?
MR. HAGEL: You accurately noted that three days after I became secretary of defense sequestration hit. And sequestration, by the way, is still the law of the land. The Congress and the president last year came to an agreement on adjusting those cuts, but the Pentagon first through a 2011 agreement with the Congress and the president, started taking a $50 billion a year cut to cut 500 billion over a 10-year period of time. On top of that, and in addition to that, was sequestration, which was another $50 billion cut to the Pentagon.
So when I came into office, there days later I was confronted with a budget that had already essentially been accepted – we budgeted for everything, our chiefs – and the Pentagon has to have the certainty of long-term budgeting for weapons systems, for a lot of things. A five-year budget for the Pentagon, as John knows too as Secretary of the Navy, is nothing. I mean, the Pentagon has to have 20-year budgets in their own mind and their own thinking and their own planning.
But to stay on subject, that meant that we had to take $50 billion out of our current plans – $50 billion. So what I did immediately was I ordered what was referred to as a Strategic Choices Management Review of, first of all, where are we. We brought the chiefs in, obviously all our financial people had to be in this, but this was going to have to be some policy – this was going to have be some policy choices. That's why the name of that review was Strategic Choices and Management Review, because we were going to have to make some tough choices and decisions, where are we going to cut $50 billion in this budget year?
That then resulted – eventually we came back with – we went to combatant commanders. We went to all our leaders all over the world. We brought everybody in. So I wanted to understand from everybody – not just the people at the Pentagon but the combatant commanders that had the responsibility all over the world, which are really the ones that are out there on the firing line every day, and their people, what they thought. And we came back, we worked together on this.
And it required – first when we looked at this, we thought we were going to have to furlough people 21 days. I said, we can't do that. That's just unacceptable. I can't – I will not do that. So we eventually got it down to at the most in some cases three days and in other cases five days. We had to stand down all training for a few months – no Air Force training, no basic Army training, Navy steaming. All our operations were on hold, no maintenance, just to get us through the year – just to get us through the year.
Then, as we started to kind of work our through this over the months, then, if you recall, also a few months later there's a 16-day government shutdown, which was another surprise – (laughter) – because the politicians, through their mindless, irresponsible way of doing things, and I've been on that side of the street, said either you do it my way – a certain group in the Congress – or we'll threaten to shut down the government, and we'll shut down the government. Well, they did.
And after we had to, because it was law and we didn't have any money, that was on top of the 50 billion (dollars), I said: I'm going to bring back a number of people. And I took some heat on that from a lot of people. But I said, I'm not going to comply with that. Sue me. I can't do that for the national security of this country. I won't do it. Now, we did have some of our people out for that 16 days. It hurt us terribly. I mean, you just can't take people out in that cycles and then bring them back in 16 days later and say, OK, pick up where we left off.
And what was particularly irresponsible and nutty about a government shutdown is eventually everybody got paid. What they didn't get paid initially because of the shutdown because we don't have any money. Why? Because the unions, who represented many of them, people went to court, it was arbitrated, and we had to pay back pay. Of course we did. So what did we gain? We put everybody back – and I hope this Congress got a pretty good understanding of what you do to your country when you shut down a government, when you say we're just not going to function as a government and I'll make my political point. Well, you go make your political point out on the campaign trail, pal, not risk the security of this country.
So I spent a huge amount of time, Fred, on budgets. I had to. I didn't have any other choice. I mean, there was no one else who could make the final choices and decisions. But back to a point about people, how important people are. I was very fortunate, I had tremendous people to work with at the Pentagon and all over the world, these professionals, both the uniformed military and political appointees and in particular civilians, government civilians, who get vilified all the time on the campaign trail – government's lazy, government employees are lazy. We haven't given them raises over the years, not just defense.
And we better be careful with that too, because our best people, qualified people, they're not going to be interested in going into government. And why should they be, if they're continually threatened and vilified and no increases? But I had to rely on a tremendous group of people in those three particular branches. And they fulfilled every expectation. And if America could have seen those people and how they worked through these big issues in a crisis for the good of a country – it wasn't for their own personal benefit, but for the good of America – this country would have been very proud, and who have a whole different view of many of them than what many of these politicians talk about these lazy government workers today.
MR. KEMPE: And do we have the budget and the military force that we need to maintain our position in the world?
MR. HAGEL: We're getting perilously close for me to say no. I think we are right on the edge, Fred. If that agreement had not been made with the president and the Congress to put another 35 billion (dollars) back in, essentially, to the Defense Department this year, and another, I think, 15 (billion dollars) or so next year, then I would have had to say absolutely not.
Now, it's going to be interesting when the budget presentation is made here in another month or so up on the Hill, what our chiefs are going to say about that, because the chiefs of the services are under obligation, oath, responsibility to respond when the chairman of the Armed Services Committee asks the chief – as many of you in this room have testified, General Wald and others, and Chairman Warner and many others know how this works – they say: General, can you – can you assure America that this budget that you're presenting today will secure this country and do the things that you believe, as chief of staff of the Army, or the Air Force, whatever it is, can do to secure this country? And these chiefs will have to be honest.
And I think we're right on the edge, Fred. You said something in your generous introduction of me about I served at a time when we – the first time in a long time when we were cutting the military budget, but at the same time there was more demand for our military around the world. You can't have it both ways. Now, if there are politicians who think they can, they better go back to the drawing board, because it won't work. If you want our military to do the job that the military can do better than anybody in the world will do, but you got to give them the resources and the certainty that those resources will be there. The certainty and the predictability, or you better expect less. Don't demand more, but less.
So we're at a critical, critical time here, Fred. And I'm very concerned about the military budget, because I don't think it's enough. But I think, to answer your question, it's right on the edge whether we can do what we need to do to continue to secure this country with the expectations we have. Now, can we do without fewer submarines, the aircraft, new platforms? Yes. But you'll pay a price for that. You won't pay the price next year or two to three years, but you will pay a price. Certainly you will in five years, and you certainly will in 10 years. And you got to stay ahead of it.
Now, as the American people – are the American people, leaders in the Congress, and whoever the next president is willing to make that kind of continued commitment? We'll see. But I think it's one of the great, great debates that we need to have in our country, that we haven't seen with this goofy political season we've had so far. It's kind of like this mass Gong Show all over. (Laughter.) But that's a critical question. Finally, when we get to two presidential candidates, it needs to be asked of those presidential candidates.
And I would go back and also say another one that's critical is a question you asked me, America's role in the world. I think that's very flaky. I think there's a lot of misunderstanding, misconceptions. What do Americans want? What do Americans think they need? And they need to express themselves on this. And our eventual candidates need to be very clear on what they think America's role in the world is and what our security interests are, and how you fund those.
MR. KEMPE: I will come back to the mass Gong Show in a few minutes, but let's talk a little bit about Syria. As I go around the world, and particularly in the Middle East, a lot of our allies talk about August 30th, 2013, when you had spent that day approving plans for Tomahawk cruise missile strikes in Syria in response to Assad's use of chemical weapons. And the president called you, called others, and asked that to be stood down. Can you tell us a little bit how you experience that at the time? And are some of our allies right in saying that that hurt the credibility of the United States and the president?
MR. HAGEL: The last part of your question I'll answer first. Yes, I think it did hurt the credibility of the president of the United States. I have always believed, and I saw close-up as secretary of defense, because I am dealing with my colleagues, ministers of defense from all over the world, that – and I saw it when I was in the Senate. I saw it as a businessman as I traveled all over the world. When a president of the United States says something, it means something. Now, we Americans, I think, kind of take that for granted. Well, the president said this, so what? It isn't that way around the world. When a president of the United States says something, especially about foreign policy or about another leader of another country, that means something.
And we have to understand that that means something. And the president and the White House have to understand that means something. And there are various interpretations usually. And so that's why a president has to be very clear when he says things about foreign policy, or about any leader has lost the credibility to govern and that leader cannot stay, or a red line. We will respond in this instance, as you mentioned, if the Assad government used chemical weapons, which we were very careful in analyzing. We went through the United Nations. And in fact, yes it was – they were chemical weapons. And there was a question there whether Assad's forces used the weapons. Or maybe it was someone else that was trying to give the impression that it was the Assad forces.
All of this was vetted very thoroughly. And we saw the evidence that we needed to know and be assured that it was the Assad forces. So to make those kind of pronouncements and then not follow through does effect the credibility of a president. Now, in this particular case, as you know, one of the things that came out of that decision that was made by the White House, after the decision had been made, yes, to go ahead, and we had given the president many, many options on this and spent a lot of time on this, was to – and the Russians were obviously significant in this; it would never happen without the Russians – was to work out a way to start getting the chemical weapon precursors out of Syria, which we did.
Now, I doubt if all of them are out, but it's a significant amount of those precursors were removed from Syria. And it was a significant achievement, working with the Russians, working with many other countries. And I think it was a significant technological advancement in the way of how we did it, and our military deserves tremendous credit because this was not easy to do. And getting the movement and the shipment of those precursors sent to a port, and where were you going to store them, and how would they be handled, how would they be transported onto a ship, and whose ship, who had security for that ship, where would it be offloaded on another ship, what ports would it use? And big, big project. And that was successful. So that came out of the decision not to take action. I said in that article that I'll let history judge whether that was the right decision or not.
MR. KEMPE: Let's stick with the Middle East a little bit. In August of 2014, you said the threat posed by the Islamic State, quote, "is beyond anything we've seen." What did you see at that point? That was pretty early on. What did you see at that point that others did not, and why did you have that instinct?
MR. HAGEL: Well, Fred, again, I had been around long enough to know, and to working on the Intelligence Committee in the Senate for many years, and co-chairman or the president of the Intelligence Committee, traveling the world for 12 years on the Foreign Relations Committee in the Senate, if you're paying attention, and if you're reading, and if you're listening and picking up things from the people who do know – our intelligence community, our State Department officials are very connected into this, Defense Department obviously. So you take the whole thing, and it's a mosaic, Fred. It isn't all of a sudden it just came to me. This group is now – out of nowhere it came. And it's the most spectacular non-state challenge threat to America that we've ever seen.
It didn't just come to me. It was an accumulation of – like a mosaic, a piece here, a piece here. I had been watching. As secretary of defense I had to. And it was very clear to me, Fred, this part was, that when you started really looking at what was going on, first the use, the sophistication of social media by ISIS, we'd never seen anything like it. Al-Qaida wasn't even in the league. And nothing like this. Then you start to see the military, strategic and tactical planning and prowess that these guys had. Al-Qaida didn't have that. The funding, the resources, and using ideology in a very distorted way, the so-called caliphate, clearly connecting with the disconnected, and the disaffected, and the alienated, particularly young people who had – who had suffered as their parents and grandparents under the yoke of totalitarianism, especially in the Middle East.
And for us not to understand a lot of that added up to – and then, in my opinion, the very weak Iraqi government. And I think the Iraqi government bears considerable responsibility for what happened, squandering five years of not doing what they had said they would do under Maliki and others, bringing the Sunni-Shia-Kurds together. Their constitution requires it, by the way, and it didn't happen. It further alienated the people of Iraq and the religious sectarian divides that were already existent, tribal divides, historic divides, ethnic divides. And all this just – it just didn't explode onto the scene, but it was building, it was building, it was building. Some of our former ambassadors to the Middle East are here. They have written articles, written books about this, and lived it.
So when I was asked that question, Fred, I gave that answer because I absolutely believe it. I never gave an answer, by the way, in anything I ever did, that I didn't believe. Now, it's gotten me in some trouble over the years, but – I might be wrong. I'm never afraid to be wrong. I didn't want to be wrong. Tried not to be wrong. But I could be. Probably was on some occasions. But I really, really felt strongly that this was a force we had never been up against, and we were not prepared to deal with. Their intelligence capability and all the other dynamics that I've already mentioned, we weren't prepared to deal with that. We didn't know how to deal with that. And you're not going to solve this problem by just continuing bombing, bombing, bombing, airstrike after airstrike.
There's a military component to this, absolutely, but it's actually bigger and deeper because you're talking about ideology and history and disaffection that you're not going to solve by bombing. You'll make it worse. You'll make it worse.
MR. KEMPE: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Asia – you invested a lot of time in Asia, and including the six trips that I mentioned, and focused in particular on building the defense and security relationship with India. I wonder if you can give us a bit of a view of what you were trying to achieve with your efforts in Asia, what did you achieve with your efforts in Asia, and particularly why you invested the time that you did in India?
MR. HAGEL: Starting with India, Fred, go back to my earlier comments I made here at the beginning of this discussion, when I said that we are seeing a new world order being built. We're seeing a new world order being defined. A new world order playing out different ways. And I think you need not go much further than India to understand that, or certainly Asia. Expectations, growth, possibilities, technology, education, wider and wider parameters on possibilities and expectations. And India represents that as much as any one country. And here we are, India, as we know, overtakes China in the not-too-distant future as the most populous country in the world.
India will continue to be, and I think will be more and more, important as we go deeper into this century. So I thought India was at one of those critical times, like all countries, shifting, changing, moving, going through a self-identity issue inside. I'm not India expert. I'm not an expert on anything. But again, I do try to listen and I do try to pay attention. And I had been there a few times as a Senator. And I thought, that's a critical relationship for many reasons. I'm not the first one to figure that out. Many administrations have thought about that.
But I learned something also, Fred, in politics and other things in life, that environments dictate possibilities. And I don't care how well-intentioned or virtuous your motives, if the environment is not right it will not happen. Political environments dictate everything. I mean, how much boundary does a president or any leader have to change a country, to move a country, is what I'm talking about. And India, I thought, was at that stage when there was so much possibility, with a new leader coming on, Modi. And I did spend a lot of time working on that.
And when the president met President Obama, with Prime Minister Modi, the deliverables in that – most of those deliverables came out of the Defense Department. And by the way, I don't take any credit on that. It was so many people in the Defense Department who had been working before I got to the Defense Department on this. But I just kind of put a focus on it. And everybody in this room knows, once the leader focuses on it, it is going to happen.
The CEOs of companies in this room, there could be a lot of good talk about everything – that's a good idea – and then let's go have lunch. Unless the leader says this is going to do – is going to happen and I'm going to lead this and we're going to do it, it will not happen. And maybe I brought some voice and some leadership to it, but a lot of good people worked hard on this. So I thought also the geopolitical offset, China. Obviously the rest of Southeast Asia, the Pacific, as we were rebalancing our focus, we were doing new things in that part of the world, India was an indispensable part of that, had to be.
And that kind of bridges us into the next part of my answer to your question, the time I spent there. And I did. I took six major trips in two years, more than Secretary Kerry, more than anybody in the administration. And part of that was to help building and strengthen partnerships, not military-to-military, that was a part of it, a big part of it, and our Pacific Command commanders were tremendous over the years on building this. But it had to be more than that. And I'll give you an example. I was the first secretary ever to invite the ten ASEAN nations, their ministers of defense, to come to Hawaii for a meeting that I would host. Never been done before. And they all came – three days.
And at that three-day meeting, I had a number of our senior government officials there. I had State Department senior people. I had trade senior representatives there. I had Peace Corps representatives. So the point was, this isn't just a military-to-military deal. That's important. Security, stability, economic prosperity, you can't disconnect any of those three. They all are the tripods of progress for a future of a country or a nation. But you can't have any of them without the other either. So stability and security are key to economic prosperity. But what are we offering, the United States, more than just our ships and our manpower and our security?
We got to do better than that, because most of those countries are suspicious of our motives. You just want to use us as a base. You just want to use us as a military ally. No, that'll come, that's OK, because we have common interests here, partnerships based on the common interests of our countries. Now, we did the military piece too. Pacific Command put on great shows and we had great demonstrations, of course, which those defense ministers appreciated. But we did far more – far more than that. That's an example, Fred, when you ask what was I trying to accomplish, strengthen current alliances, relationships, build new partnerships.
And we were able to do the deal with the Philippines, which just recently has been executed. But when I was there we were able to sign the deal on starting to use, again, Clark and Subic, which were really critical bases for us – not station American troops there anymore. That's not the way to do it, which we learned, but deployments and being able to use those ports and those airfields, respecting the laws, respecting the people, and not using the people and using the nations. But the Philippines clearly understand, or they wouldn't have done the deal, this is in their interest too. But they had to have a say in that as well.
Also, I would remind everyone here that the United States of America has seven treaty obligations in the world. Five of those seven are in Asia Pacific. We have always been a Pacific power. We have always looked west. I say that at the same time I say, as I've done this to my NATO colleagues many, many times, and our friends in Europe and elsewhere, that doesn't mean that we're retreating from any other part of the world, not at all. It's not a retreat from any part of the world, it's a rebalancing of assets, of issues, of realities. Nobody in the world today does not understand that future markets, future growth does not reside in the Pacific and in Asia, in any measurement of that.
That doesn't mean Europe's going away, should go away, or any other – Africa. Africa becomes more and more important. So it's balancing our interests, responsibilities. And matter of fact, we've done more with NATO in the last couple of years than we've done with NATO in 20 years. Now, Mr. Putin helped get us there. (Laughter.) Not the way we organized it, but – or would have wanted it, but that aspect didn't hurt.
MR. KEMPE: But let me go to that. I'm going to ask a very brief question on Ukraine, then a brief question on American politics, and then hopefully we'll have a few minutes for questions.
The brief question on Ukraine, you've said we should have done more. You were particularly in favor of defensive weapons, more in favor than some others in the administration. Can you talk about that, because obviously you weren't talking about boots on the ground, you weren't talking – you know, you've always been in favor, at the Atlantic Council and before, of a good relationship with Russia. So what do you think would have been perhaps a better response?
MR. HAGEL: Yeah. Well, let me begin this way, and I've said this publicly, I give President Obama a lot of credit for not overreacting to this particular situation, which a lot of people I think expected him to, wanted him to. But he was always very careful. And I think this has been one of President Obama's strongest foreign policy assets. He has not allowed the United States to get caught in downward drafts of crises. It's easy without even recognizing it to ricochet from crisis to crisis. And when you get caught in those downdrafts, you are caught in a downdraft.
And as I often would remind the president and others in the National Security Council, once you engage the United States military somewhere, you're engaged. And it normally doesn't get less, it gets more. And so if you want to commit the United States military somewhere, because it's the only honest way to do it, you better be prepared to go ahead and before you do that ask the next set of questions – then what happens, then what happens, then what happens – which I don't think we've done well over the last few years.
Whether it's invading Iraq or Libya, because we didn't ask the question, who governs after Saddam Hussein? How will they govern? Who decides who governs? Who governs after Gadhafi? How will that government be picked? Who decides that? Are we going to do that? So in my opinion, there were some pretty big blunders over the years because we didn't ask the tough questions. Oh, easy to put our military in, because our military is the best in the world, best in the history of man, performs better. But don't do that to our military because there's not a military answer to things.
Now, that said, to answer your question about specifically Ukraine, there were some pretty hard conversations and questions about how we were going to handle this, because Russia, at the direction of President Putin, violated the sovereignty of another nation and international law. Now, you can go back and look at the history of Crimea. The reality is that 98 percent of the citizens of Crimea are Russian nationals. I've said, I think, a great deal of, unfortunately, what happened in Ukraine was a result of 20 years of corrupt governments in Ukraine, whether they were pro-West or pro-Russian.
The poor people of Ukraine had been terribly, terribly served by their leaders, and especially the eastern part of Ukraine that's close to the edge of Russia. And I think one thing too, going back to just a reminder of knowing a little history here, Russia began in Ukraine, in Kiev. If you go back and study Russian history hundreds of years ago, that's where it all began. And the Russians have always believed that Ukraine is part of who they are. Now, that's no excuse for what Putin did, absolutely not. But I think in trying to understand the realities here of what happened, why did it happen, we have to deal with that.
And President Obama was very clear that we were not about ready to go to war with Russia over Crimea. Now, I suppose there were others who thought we should go to war with Russia over Crimea. I didn't. And his – I don't' think anybody in his Cabinet said that. I didn't hear it. But we had to deal with it. So one of the things that we did do, back to NATO, is that we bolstered considerably our exercises, our training, our forward deployment of people, equipment, especially on that eastern border.
And we made it very clear, and in my conversations with Defense Minister Shoygu in Russia, that the United States was very clear, President Obama was very clear, on exercising Article 5 of the NATO treaty. And that is that we will come to the defense of any NATO nation that's invaded by anybody. We have no – we have no alternative. And we made that very clear up front. Minister Shoygu and I – and I like Minister Shoygu, the defense minister – had a number of conversations about this situation.
I actually was a little sideways from the White House on some of this. But when they didn't want us really talking to our Russian counterparts. Now, Secretary Kerry talked to Lavrov, which was the right thing to do. But Chairman Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, continued, as much as he could, to keep some military-to-military relationship with his counterpart, which I thought was critically important, General Dempsey did, to keep a military-to-military connection, communication, so that we didn't make big mistakes here, so that we didn't second guess each other or assume things that weren't right.
And I thought too, that – and I wasn't the only one – that we could have done more to assist the Ukrainians in nonlethal weapons, defensive weapons, equipment, at a much faster rate to show more support. But at the same time, we had to look at the reality is Ukrainian Army is very limited in its capacity. And we didn't want to get the Ukrainian Army in a situation by not understanding if you send the wrong signals here, they would then believe that somehow we would come charging in, or come to their rescue, and send the wrong signal to the Ukrainians and their armed forces that we were really there and would be there for them.
So it was delicate. And I give President Obama a lot of credit for walking a very difficult line on this. Now, we were under pressure at NATO, because as you know the eastern front nations were in a lot different situation than the Western European nations, for historic reasons if nothing else, being most of those countries on that eastern front has lived under the yoke of communism and of the Soviets, and knew the brutality, and knew what had happened. And their concern was very real. And so we had to recognize and not diminish that, but bolster NATO, the seriousness of NATO, and doing everything we could, short of going to war, with the Russians.
Now, this issue, as you know, is still not resolved. But we don't want this to flare back up until we can get to some hopefully diplomatic solution as we move back – as we try to unwind this. But last point I'd make on this, and it goes back to a lot of the points we were making earlier in this discussion, the uncontrollables, the unpredictables, the unknowns, crisis after crisis flaring up. So isn't it interesting, there's been very little media and very little attention and very little focus in the last year on Ukraine.
Well, I don't think it's because there's no interest, but ISIS, Syria, Iraq – all of what's going on in that part of the world has just taken everybody over here. The president has only so much time. His Cabinet has only so much time. We have only so much resource base to work from. So we've got to – this is my point about not getting sucked down these drafts of crisis that will take you right over the edge before you even know it, and you're now knee-deep in a crisis that you can't get out of. So it's kind of a meandering answer, Fred, but I think – I think all those elements were involved in the equation. It was a difficult – it still is – it was a difficult issue to handle.
MR. KEMPE: Thank you. We started about 10 minutes late. Maybe we'll run a little bit over 6:30, about 10 minutes. This last question from me – for the media in the audience, as you know, I was with The Wall Street Journal for many, many years. This is a transparent attempt to get you to cover our event. (Laughter.) So it's a two-part question. The first is, what advice would you, as a Republican, have for the Republican front-runner Donald Trump? (Laughter.) Please, tweet – get your tweets ready. And the second is, really looking at the Republican Party right now, looking at the election campaign, you called it a Gong Show earlier. I wonder if you could flesh out that answer a little bit.
MR. HAGEL: I thought it was a pretty good answer, I have to say. (Laughter.) Well, as to advice, I'm not going to be able to stall on this I can tell and try to think of a good, clever answer. But my advice to Mr. Trump, or all the candidates, on both sides as Democrat or Republican, is focus on uniting this country not dividing it.
And I have been struck in this presidential campaign by the focus – not all candidates, unfortunately most of them, and most of the ones that are leading – their candidacies have been focused on dividing America. That's dangerous. That's not who we are. I thought President Obama spoke to this pretty well last night. It doesn't solve problems. It exacerbates problems. It deepens problems. Now, we should have various points of view. They should be expressed, and campaigns are ways to do that.
But every presidential campaign in my memory – and I remember – my first one as a very, very small child sitting around an old Philco radio with my granddad and my dad in Ainsworth, Nebraska, a little town up on the Sioux City – or, South Dakota-Nebraska border, listening to the 1948 presidential result. My poor mother was going through labor in a five-bed hospital in Ainsworth trying to get this over with, bearing her second son. And my father was around the radio with my grandfather, listening to those returns. And I was very young, but I still remember that event.
My point is, every presidential election I can recall has been about bringing America together, has been about uniting America, that we had all had different points of view. This is a country that the tapestry of cultures and histories and traditions that's so astounding – I mean, how it all works, it's just amazing. Why don't we play on that? Why don't we focus on that rather than what divides us? And that'd be my advice to all of them.
Party – Republican Party. Well, I have some former colleagues here and others who could probably give better answers than me, but when you ask me about the Republican Party, I'm not sure what the Republican Party is today. It's not the party that I started out in. I think it is a – it's an amalgamation of tribes. I think the Republican Party is tribal today. It reminds me kind of, the area I grew up in Nebraska, of the Sioux Nation. The Sioux Nation was made up of many different tribes. And that's where the Republican Party is.
And I think the Republican Party will get to a center of gravity, that generally philosophically kind of expresses what the Republican Party generally used to express. I don't know anyone who really – that I served with in the Congress or anybody in politics – who can honestly say I agree with every sentence of the Republican Party, if you're Republican, or the Democratic Party. I mean, there are those out there, I suppose, like that. But generally, Republican Party had a philosophy, Democratic Party had a philosophy.
I'm not sure what the Republican Party philosophy is. I'm not sure what the party is. I don't know where it is. I saw that evolving when I was in the Senate. One of the reasons I didn't run for a third term, and I think I had a pretty good shot at being re-elected since I'd just been re-elected six years prior with 84 percent of the vote. I didn't think I'd get 84 percent the third time, but I think I'd have been all right. I didn't want to spend another six years of my life in that kind of a situation – the chaos and the absolutism that's now really been rooted in essentially both parties, but especially the Republican Party.
I'm all right all the time. You're all wrong all the time. And you have nothing to say. And that's just the way it is. I think what's saving the Democratic Party, and has over the last eight years, is they have the White House. And when the party who has the White House, it kind of keeps everybody behaving, not all the time. There are those misbehavers in each party. But a party who controls the White House has got the crown jewel. That kind of keeps everybody together. When you don't have that, even though you've got the Congress, it's different.
The other part of this is, as far as the Republican Party – and I think again you could apply it even to the Democratic Party, but you asked about my party. The other thing that we've got to get back to, and this is not just party-centric, but it's more candidate-centric. Why do you want to come to Washington? To tear it down? You go out and campaign against Washington. The Senate's a terrible place. Can't get anything done. House is a terrible place. And yet, you want to come here – (laughter) – have "senator" in front of your name, or "congressman." What's the point?
Well, the point should be only one point, and that is to help govern our country – govern, govern, govern, govern. We haven't done any governing in this country for a long time. Both sides are to blame for that – both sides. And that's the greatest responsibility any of us have who's elected, is to help improve the country, make it better, move it forward, compromise where you need to compromise, but get it done and govern. That's governing. That's governing, not political speeches.
And so I think it all wraps into one, Fred. The Republican Party will come back to some center of gravity at some point. I think it's probably 2020 before we see that. I mean, I do. I may be wrong. As I said, I've been wrong before on a lot of things. But I don't think that's going to happen in this election. I think we're going to have to throughout probably another four years of sorting out who are we, what do we believe, what do we stand for, what do we want to accomplish for our country?
MR. KEMPE: Thank you, Secretary Hagel. As you can all tell, we could have done an hour, hour and a half on Ukraine, or on Syria, or on governance, or on politics. But we're very near the end of our time. I'm just going to take two questions, one from – one here, Barbara, and please also – please. But, oh, you know, we have to take Senator Warner. First, Senator Warner, but thank you. Yeah.
Q: Let's go back to the First Gulf War.
MR. KEMPE: And I'll pick up – I'll gather the three questions.
Q: First Gulf War. It caught us by surprise. Kuwait was invaded. President Bush went to a dozen-plus nations and got their support. He went to United Nations and got a resolution. And he came to the Congress and literally demanded that we show our support or not show it. And we fought for a week in that chamber and finally passed a resolution authorizing the use of force by our president pursuant to the U.N. resolution – only by five votes did we win. And the rest is history.
We're at that juncture now with ISIS, when this Congress has got to step in, figure out with Obama some joint basis on which to go forward against it, and vote on it. Do you intended to participate to try and bring your leadership and your experience to bear on Congress getting involved and repeating joining with the president? And that's why America's strong – between the two co-equal branches getting together and resolving this dispute.
MR. KEMPE: And, Secretary Hagel – thank you for that question – let me pick up the last two please. Here and there. Yeah, thank you.
Q: Thanks. Secretary Hagel, it's a pleasure to see you here again.
MR. HAGEL: Barbara, thank you.
Q: I wanted to ask about Syria. You said bombing alone won't do it. You've been critical, I think, in the past of the administration for not doing more, but you've also said that regime change is not always the answer. So looking at Syria now, where we are now, what would your advice be to the administration to try to end this war in some reasonable way? Thanks.
MR. KEMPE: There is a memo that's written on that, I think. But just a minute, let me pick up the last question. That was impertinent of me, excuse me. (Laughter.)
MR. HAGEL: I mean, you can't get that old journalistic problem out of your system, I guess. (Laughter.)
Q: Thanks, Senator. Randall Fort with Raytheon.
Early in your remarks you talked about technology. And there are lot of interesting technologies in the defense space right now – hypersonics, autonomous systems, directed energy, nanotechnology, cyberweapons and so forth. And I just wondered if you'd speculate a little bit about where you see those technology trends going, and what sort of impact that'll have on the national security establishment of the future.
MR. KEMPE: OK.
MR. HAGEL: OK. Senator Warner, the only problem I ever had with Senator Warner, serving with him, was we agreed too damn much on all issues. (Laughter.) John, I am fully in agreement. And I've said so. I actually said so in testimony while I was still secretary of defense. The Congress has responsibility to go on the record on this. One of your successors, Senator Kaine from Virginia, has been very deliberate on this and very forceful. He's right.
My goodness, if the Congress of the United States can't even put themselves on the record on something this serious, but yet the same people who refuse to vote or don't want to vote or make excuses not to vote go out and give campaign speeches about how terrible ISIS is and blaming the Obama administration for mishandling it and so on, that's not just disingenuous, that's dishonest. We've got to see the Congress on the record, give some leadership. The American people deserve it. And our military men and women deserve it. And thank you for asking the question.
Barbara, on Syria, I have said for some time – I said it when I was secretary of defense and I've said it publicly, that in the Middle East, Syria specifically to your question, there cannot be, will not be any possibility of resolution, solution, until there is a platform of stability. Stability in the sense that it is stable enough – stable enough to start taking it to the next level of trying to sort out what's going on. I don't have to go into the history, everybody in this room knows it, of the complications there.
And that means working with Russia, clearly, closely. I think it means working with the Iranians. I don't think you will see any possibility of any stability in the Middle East until the Russians, the Iranians, the United States, and the Arab nations are part of that. We have – I'll tell you something else, we have allowed ourselves to get caught and paralyzed on our Syrian policy by the statement that Assad must go. Assad was never our enemy. A brutal dictator, yes. A lot of brutal dictators out there. I'm not for brutal dictators.
But we should have learned from Hussein – Saddam Hussein and Gadhafi, you can take a brutal dictator out, but better understand what you may get in return. We never ask that question: What's coming after Assad? Assad is eventually going to have to leave, in my opinion, for all the reasons I think we know. That should not hold us captive to everything else, that we have to always go back to, well, but we said he's got to go. Well, OK, but let's get to this platform of stability. Russia, Iran, the Saudis – whether that can be done, I don't know – all have to come together with enough common interest to help stabilize things, then try to start sorting it out. How can there be any sorting out until there's some element of stability?
Technology – you might be familiar with the speech I gave at the Ronald Reagan Library a couple years ago when I announced the rollout of the third offset. And I referred to it as Defense Innovation Initiative, DII. And it was focused on – I thought that we in the Defense Department were too captive to our own resources and to our own insular thinking, although we've ever since World War II had to rely completely on the big military-industrial complex companies that build our planes, build our ships, and so on. But so much of that was to our prescription, our direction – our, being DOD.
And was afraid we were losing out on a lot of new things that are happening because – and I'm quickly out of my depth in innovation and technology, but I'm not so out of my depth I don't understand a little bit what's going on. So much is happening out there so fast. And I don't know if DOD is positioned well enough to take advantage of that and know enough about that and to call upon outside – outside the Pentagon, outside of Washington – to really get a better sense of the larger scope of technology and innovation and what's going on out there.
Now, DARPA, we have a lot of these institutions inside that have done spectacular jobs. And by the way, my comments should not reflect any criticism of anybody in the Department of Defense. They've done masterful jobs. But I think we can do more. And I think they're impeded to some extent because we haven't gone outside and taken a lot of initiative. That's why I referred to it in that speech as the Defense Innovation Initiative. We take the initiative to be more innovative, because the Chinese are certainly doing it big time. The Russians are doing it big time.
I mean, we – I think there's a lot of misconception about the Russians. While they're kind of these plodding old Russians that, you know, are trying to do things the old way – no, no, no. And the non-state actors, ISIS being one of the, but ISIS isn't the only one, they're taking advantage of it. Iran is taking advantage of it. North Korea is taking advantage of it. So that was the whole point of my initiative. And it, I think, cuts to your point. And I think we'll do that. We'll continue to do that.
The last point I'd make on this, and it goes back to Congress. The Congress cannot allow itself to micromanage – just like the White House has done it. The Congress does it actually in many ways more than the White House does it, because what the Congress does, as John Warner knows so well, is every year they come up with the National Defense Authorization Act. And that is hundreds of pages of new directives for the Pentagon for new reports, new studies, on and on and on. And every time that happens you take more of the energy, more of the time, more of the focus out of what the Pentagon should be doing.
Now, there's no one who's a stronger oversight person than I am, the role of the Congress. But let's be smart here. It's straight political junk that comes from members of Congress on a lot of this stuff. I mean, when you go up and ask the Air Force, for example, we need to start phasing out the A-10s. The A-10s have been a great platform, a great aircraft for the last 40 years. It's outdated. Just the maintenance alone costs that we need to bring in new platforms. We do it with all of our submarine classes, our destroyer classes. We do it with all of them.
We're not going to close any A-10 assembly lines because those are jobs in my district and my state. Well, how about the fact that we are now covering about 25 percent of overhead we don't need? Bases, facilities, we don't need them. It doesn't do anything for national security interests? Can't do that, no, no. Now, if you guys in the Pentagon would just manage smarter and better – now, you're going to have to go ahead and keep all that waste – but it's your fault that you don't manage better. Well, OK, congressman. OK, senator. (Laughter.)
But as long as the Congress continues to do what it's doing, it really impairs the ability of our people in the Pentagon, for example, to do what they have to do to make the hard choices. I mean, Mark Welsh is the chief of staff of the Air Force. He was an A-10 pilot. Loves the A-10. I use the A-10 as a clear example because it's gotten a lot of attention. He loves that airplane, A-10 pilot. He said it's time to go, that we have to recycle and bring in the new technology and the new aircraft. Maintenance costs are killing us on these old platforms, whether it's Navy ships, whatever it is. That's taking money away from the long-term commitment of new platforms we're going to need to stay ahead of the Chinese or the Russians or any other threat.
I mean, I was there. I understand it. I get it. But I've got to say, I never did that. I never did. And it wasn't always popular with my own constituents on this, but I always used one measurement when I was there as a senator: Does it add to the national security of this country? Nothing else. No congressman or senator wants to see something shut down in his or her district or state. Of course not. But the Defense Department is there for one reason. Every Defense Department dollar that goes into protecting this country should be about protecting this country, nothing else. It should not be an economic development program. That's an aside, that's good, but that shouldn't be the first consideration. And unfortunately, that has become the first consideration. I think we've covered that.
MR. KEMPE: Secretary Hagel, thank you. (Applause.) Randall, Barbara, Senator Warner, these are great questions. I'm sorry we couldn't get to many more questions. I'd ask you to remain in your seats while the secretary exits the room.
Let me just close by saying the following: We are so proud of our association with you, Secretary Hagel. I think you all can understand why we invented a title called distinguished statesman at the Atlantic Council because you have not only earned it, you continue to speak in that manner. And we look forward to continuing to work with you, and hope you will inspire directions in this country for many years yet. So thank you so much, Secretary Hagel, for taking this time with us.
MR. HAGEL: Thanks, Fred. Thank you all very much. Thank you. John, thank you. (Applause.)