Still Sergeant Hagel After All These Years: A Talk With the Defense Secretary

From sequestration to Syria, the Pentagon faces tough challenges. How the former senator has adapted.
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U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks to the media about the U.S. government shutdown at his hotel in Seoul. (Jacquelyn Martin/Reuters)

Recently, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sent a 904-page book to Egyptian Army commander in chief Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, with whom he has had over 20 conversations since taking over at the Pentagon. The book, Washington: A Life, won the Pulitzer Prize for its author, Ron Chernow. Rather than suggesting he read it all, Hagel emphasized to General Al-Sisi the chapter on Washington giving up his power at the end of his presidential term and thus securing for the young nation one of the key pillars of leadership transition in a democracy run by civilian authority.

Hagel connected with the Egyptian general, who would later lead the anti-Morsi coup, when he toured the Gulf region bolting down a major U.S. arms sale in April of this year. Hagel and his Pentagon team had tied together Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirites, and Israel in a $10 billion deal bolstering these countries' defenses against potential Iranian aggression. Though each of the deals were particular to the specific countries, they knew that the cumulative impact would send a signal of resolve to Iran’s Supreme Leader. Given that the powerful lobby, the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, was formed in part as a response to American’s 1981 effort to sell military aircraft to Saudi Arabia, the implicit cooperation between the Israelis and Saudis on the Hagel deal was unusual.

After seven months on the job, Hagel has generally kept a low profile. One of the few exceptions was when he announced the American findings that Syria had used chemical weapons in a dozen or so cases, killing then around 150 people.

In an interview below, on September 27, Hagel’s seven-month anniversary as secretary, I spoke to him about the impact of budget cuts on military readiness, the sequester kicking in on his third day on the job, and the issue of sexual violence in the armed services.

I asked Hagel where he was on the issue of attacking Syria and how he felt about the current environment—not just with Assad over chemical weapons, but with Russia, and somewhat remarkably, Iran. We spoke about his three trips to Asia, from where he just returned—as well as what breakfast was like with the Defense Ministers (and some Deputy Defense Ministers) of Russia, China, Japan, South Korea, and others at the ASEAN Plus 8 Defense meeting after the August 21 chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime. They all were keenly focused on what Obama would do.

One of the centerpieces of the Obama Administration's foreign policy is the so-called pivot to Asia. I asked Hagel if he was driving this policy, and he demurred. Vice President Joe Biden, he said with characteristic modesty, was the lead on Asia.

Sergeant Hagel, who later became a successful businessman, then president of the troops-supporting USO, then a notable U.S. Senator from Nebraska, said that there would be no “era of Hagel” at the Pentagon, that he didn’t see his job as one of making sure he had a vanity imprint there. He saw his job as making the military work better and the nation safer.

Steve Clemons interviews Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon. (Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo/DoD)

Today marks your seventh month on the job. Congratulations. 

Yeah, thank you.

Since you have been sworn in, you have had to deal with so many issues, from sequestration hitting your third day, North Korea’s antics, Egypt and so on.

I'd like to know how you're getting on running a place where one in 100 Americans work for you. How are you getting beyond the stage of fundamentally reacting to these challenges and beginning to establish your strategy for the Pentagon?

First, I recognize that the role of the Secretary of Defense is very clear and it is to focus on the security of this country. And within that role, there are many facets that the Secretary is accountable for, starting with the fact that our Defense Department is an instrument of foreign policy. It doesn't lead foreign policy.

As Secretary, you work for the president. You are accountable to the president. You manage. You lead. You respond. And then you get beyond that where, for example, I'm meeting with the president of Uganda this morning. I meet with presidents, foreign ministers. Yesterday in New York, with John Kerry, we met with all the GCC foreign ministers.

So, the scope of the responsibilities of the Secretary of Defense are pretty broad. And within that, you are also dealing with the realities of budget issues, sequestration, and what you have to manage through. So, I've never seen my job or the time I’ll spend here as defining a Hagel era.

I've never seen it that way, because I think this is a job and a responsibility that encapsulates all of the different dimensions of the people here—the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the chairman, the secretaries, the sergeants, every person who has a role in making our defense and our security the best in the world. It's going to continue after I'm gone, was here before I was here.

So I don't see it as a Hagel imprint. The way I do see my role is what can I do to improve our security? What can I do to improve this institution while I'm here? How can I enhance it by my leadership and by my presence? And then the rest of it takes care of itself.

I read the other night the readout of you calling the commanders of the ships stationed off the coast of Syria and telling them that this was going to be a longer haul, and appreciating their service during a tense time. Tell me about how you are connecting with the people who are actually serving and how you are remaining connected to them.

Are you doing a lot more of these kinds of calls?

I'm doing that all the time. I mean, I don't know how much you know about some of the things I do around here on that point, but the first month I was here, Steve, I said I wanted to hold a monthly luncheon with the lower enlisted. I do that every month. I've done it for every month I've been here.

The senior enlisted people in each service—they pick one individual each month. I don't want them here in the building. I want them to come outside—from outside the building. I want them to be lower enlisted, E-5 and below, all different backgrounds.

We sit at that table right there, no one else in the room, for an hour. Have lunch. Have a little fun. And they ask me questions. I ask them questions. But I start every luncheon with "tell me a little bit about yourself." Now, I read their bios, but it doesn’t tell the full picture if I read just what's in their bio. "Why did you join the service?" "Are you going to stay in the service?" "What do you think is right?"

You know, personal things. And you—you really stay connected, not just that one way, but every way. When I go out, for example, when I try to get out as much as I can to see our troops. I'll be in Korea and Japan next week, as you probably know. I'll meet with our troops there.

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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