Hagel called for all-but normalizing relations with Iran so as to engage it as an ally on Israel-Palestine issue

Israel/Palestine
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Chuck Hagel
Chuck Hagel

Chuck Hagel, the Republican former Senator who is said to be Obama’s leading choice to be Defense Secretary, called for making a “security gift” to Iran and all-but normalizing relations with the country so as to get its help in solving the Israel-Palestine issue, which he described as the “strategic epicenter” of global conflict. 

Speaking in December 2008 to a Jewish audience in New York, Hagel said the United States must talk to Iran, and more: we should resume commercial flights to the country and set up an interests section there (a step short of an embassy but presumably staffed by foreign service officers).

Hagel made only a passing reference to alleged Iranian nuclear ambitions, and seemed to dismiss sanctions as he spoke of Iran as a nation with which we share interests.

We’ve already picked up Hagel’s 2010 comments, all but ruling out war with Iran. Because of such reasonable statements, neoconservatives are now gunning for him on Capitol Hill and promising a war against him should he be nominated. We can only hope that such a battle takes place; and that it includes a full discussion of the issues of “justice” for Palestinians that Hagel addressed in his speech, and of the centrality of the Israel-Palestine conflict to global instability.

Hagel was the keynote speaker to a conference of the liberal Zionist organization, the Israel Policy Forum, on December 4, 2008, at the Grand Hyatt in New York.

Here are his comments about Iran from that speech:

Engagement is not appeasement, diplomacy is not weakness….

The worst thing we can do, the most dangerous thing we can do is continue to isolate nations, is continue to not engage nations. Great powers engage. Great powers form coalitions of common interest. They form alliances….

Iran. I know it’s easy to dismiss Iran by saying, Wait, we’re not going to talk to Iran, they support terrorists, they support Hezbollah. They’ve got their tentacles wrapped around every problem in the middle East. They’re anti-Israel, anti-United States. Those are realities. Those are facts.

Now we’ve got a choice here, we can continue to push Iran out and back, and say to Iran, We will give you the privilege of sitting down and talking with us based on our preconditions. And as that goes on, Iran continues most likely to develop nuclear capabilities, it continues to enhance its position with a significant population in the Middle East, which is a direct threat against Israel, a direct threat against the interests of the United States, a threat against Iraq…
If we continue to push countries back away and out, and we don’t engage, then it is very predictable what the outcome is going to be…
You cannot take any of these challenges and deal with them in capsules, and in compartments. Iran has everything to do with the outcome in Iraq, the outcome of the Israeli Palestinian issue, of the Middle East itself, the stability of those Persian gulf countries, of oil..

[W]hen we’re talking about Iran, I believe that is going to require some kind of security gift. I believe it’s going to require some easy-to-do breakthroughs like an interest section, commercial exchange of flights. We can do those kinds of things.

You’ll see the context for these remarks in the fuller excerpt of the speech below. (I attended the Israel Policy Forum and recorded the speech that night.) As you read his words, notice how much Hagel, who was already being spoken of as a likely cabinet pick in the Obama administration, reflects the realist/idealist foreign-policy thinking of that administration: we must deal with the Israel-Palestine issue now because it threatens U.S. interests across the region and the world.

“That one issue, the Israeli-Palestinian issue shapes almost every other issue,” he said. And so we must talk to Iran. There was not a word about sanctions against Iran in Hagel’s speech, only the suggestion that we must ease them. 

Hagel said that he had spent “hours” talking with Obama, and welcomed his administration’s new approach.

The Middle East is as central to what they want to accomplish as any one thing. And why is that? Yes it’s a sense of justice. They also understand that unless we bring this Israeli Palestinian issue to some higher ground, and unless we are able to break through the fog that has surrounded, dominated, and consumed the effort that all Presidents have made since 1948, and leaders of the world have made, that continues to elude us, unless we break through that, then we will continue to see a more dangerous, complicated world.

Of course these idealistic policy pronouncements fell apart within a year, as Obama found himself pinned down by the Israel lobby. 

Here are substantial excerpts of Hagel’s speech.

[Hagel began by talking about his basic training in Texas, in June-July 1967, at the time of the Six Day War.]

And I remember there was much conversation in our barracks during our training, mainly coming from our drill sergeants, that it was a matter of where the army would send us, as we completed our basic training then our advanced infantry training– whether we would be going to the Middle East, because there was a war in the Middle East then… or Vietnam. I remember very serious conversations within our barracks about that issue and I being from Nebraska– and I had never been outside of Nebraska until I went to basic training in Fort Bliss, Texas– was most intrigued by the perceptions of these young men who were with me… and particularly their perceptions of Israel and the Middle East. What was this about? Was this America’s war. Why would we send troops to the Middle East? What a crazy idea that was. It was OK to send American troops to Vietnam, but not to the Middle East.

And I have always recalled those days, that kind of conversation, and I would freely acknowledge that I was not a great geopolitical thinker in 1967. Most people would acknowledge that I’m not a great geopolitical thinker now. Nonetheless we stumble thru these things as best we can. And that time listening to the comments and questions, shaped a sense of what I would later learn more and more about, this strange place Catholics knew as the holy land, where Jesus Christ was born and where he was crucified, where it all emanated from, our faith, everything we believed in that was good, everything that we believed America was about. Somehow that was tied to the holy land, to the Middle East….

[The Middle East] represents that part of the world, a strategic epicenter of great conflict, and I listen to Peter [Joseph, president of Israel Policy Forum] and I talk about justice, about hope, about possibilities. That is not reserved for Catholics or Jews or Hindus or Muslims. That is what we all aspire to, justice, equality, hope, a better world. I have referenced that as the common denominators of the human condition. Most of you in this room have been to many places in the world and I suspect most of you would find it hard to believe that somehow one religion or one region of the world has a corner on those virtues. That somehow Christians are more noble than Jews, or that Jews are more noble than Muslims. I don’t think so. I think all people love their children and their families and want a better world.

And that has led me to one very fundamental observation about the world, that somehow it eludes us in this great dilemma in the Middle East, and that is the human condition. The human condition has dictated every event in the history of man and it always will. Because when men are locked in cycles of despair, and when there is no human dignity, when there is no hope, then it’s fairly predictable that it will not result in a better world, in a safer world, in a more just world, and I don’t mean that I connect poverty or despair with terrorism or extremism, but I will tell you that when you look at the world today, six-and-a half billion people, the regions of the world that have been left behind since World War 2, that in fact have not enjoyed human liberties and advancement of the human condition and an increase of standard of living and hope and possibilities– they are the most troubled areas of the world, and we know where they are, the Middle East, much of Asia, Africa, a good part of South America.

It is about the human condition, and when we do not deal with the human condition, the human condition will deal with us. The human condition will dominate all of us, and the realities of policy…

The Middle East, as Peter has noted in regard to President-elect Obama’s cabinet, he is selecting– from conversations I’ve had with President-elect Obama, Senator and President-elect Obama and Vice president-elect Biden, the Middle East is as central to what they want to accomplish as any one thing. And why is that? Yes it’s a sense of justice. They also understand that unless we bring this Israeli Palestinian issue to some higher ground, and unless we are able to break through the fog that has surrounded, dominated, and consumed the effort that all Presidents have made since 1948, and leaders of the world have made, that continues to elude us, unless we break through that, then we will continue to see a more dangerous, complicated world. It is clearly in the interest of America and clearly in the interest of the Middle East, and the world that this issue be brought to a higher ground of confidence and trust and move to a different plateau of finally try to solve the problem in a relevant and realistic way.

I know that the topics of the three breakout sessions tonight are all quite relevant to your topic and your focus here tonight because all three in my opinion are part of the comprehensive strategic context and approach that must be employed in a coherent way to deal with getting to where we all or almost all of us agree we need to get to and that is a two state solution. We almost all agree with that, and the leaders of the free world, the United States, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and most all the Arab nations of the world, Russia, China, the P5 plus one, NATO, most of the United Nations, all agree, that is the objective, That is the point.

Why can’t we get there? Why do we keep going backwards? Well, partly like all great challenges and objectives in life, they are difficult. And they require a concerted concentrated focus day in and day out to get it done. I have called over the years and most recently in the last two years for a presidential special envoy that must stay there and work it, day in and day out. The good efforts of many who have been involved in these efforts over the years I do not diminish, I acknowledge, but it’s going to take an effort, an effort that is day to day, hour to hour, and minute to minute.

The United States cannot impose peace in the Middle East but I don’t believe anyway you come at this there will be peace in the Middle East without the U.S. Because, if for no other reason, we’re the only nation that’s capable and has the capacity and most importantly still I believe, has the confidence and trust of all sides, to be able to bring this and elevate this to the position it requires in order to move it toward an accommodation, a resolution.

[Hagel refers to Turkish efforts to broker Israeli-Syrian accord]

But as important as any one of those pieces, and they all play a role in the larger framework of a strategic comprehensive effort to accomplish this objective, is engagement. Engagement is not appeasement, diplomacy is not weakness. The most dangerous thing the United States or any nation can do in a completely interconnected world that we live in today and we don’t need much more evidence of an interconnected world than the global financial crisis we are trying to work our way through right now… So there isn’t any debate about this. This is a world that is interconnected, it is combustible, it’s complicated and it’s dangerous.

So what do you do? The worst thing we can do, the most dangerous thing we can do is continue to isolate nations, is continue to not engage nations. Great powers engage. Great powers form coalitions of common interest. They form alliances. They strengthen alliances. What just occurred in India [Mumbai attack, Nov. 2008] — we the civilized world, combating this kind of ruthless, despicable outrageous barbaric terrorism, which Israel has been dealing with for a long time as well as other nations– the only way we start to get a fix and our arms around that is to work a common denominator and dynamic of all people, the human condition.

And that requires engagement. That requires alliances, that requires seamless networks of intelligence-sharing and gathering, that requires jobs and hope and possibilities, education. Armies are not going to fix this problem. The military cannot fix this problem in Iraq. The military can’t fix the problem in Afghanistan. Part of it [it can fix]– but it will require all the instruments of power of a great nation, diplomatic, trade, economic, education, alliances, intelligence. Military is part of that, but they can’t fix the problem. And we’re learning that the hard way in Iraq, we’re learning that the hard way in Afghanistan. And I don’t believe you’re going to have a solution in Afghanistan and Iraq without bringing in all the powers in the region, a comprehensive strategic context of all those pieces.

Iran. I know it’s easy to dismiss Iran by saying, Wait, we’re not going to talk to Iran, they support terrorists, they support Hezbollah. They’ve got their tentacles wrapped around every problem in the middle East. They’re anti-Israel, anti-United States. Those are realities. Those are facts.

Now we’ve got a choice here, we can continue to push Iran out and back, and say to Iran, We will give you the privilege of sitting down and talking with us based on our preconditions. And as that goes on, Iran continues most likely to develop nuclear capabilities, it continues to enhance its position with a significant population in the Middle East, which is a direct threat against Israel, a direct threat against the interests of the United States, a threat against Iraq. In fact, the United States solved two of Iran’s biggest problems, Saddam Hussein and the Taliban. Why did Iran cooperate with the United States and work with the United States after the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan? Because it was in their interest. I don’t think it was because they wanted to do us a favor. It was clearly in the interest of Iran not to have that problem on its eastern border. Drugs, terrorists– that is not in the interest of Iran.

Now these are realities that we I believe must factor in to a comprehensive component of a strategic diplomatic effort to bring the nations of that region into some alignment of common interest. We’re not going to get everybody the same way on the same page at the same time, but surely, at least this is my opinion, if we continue to push countries back away and out, and we don’t engage, then it is very predictable what the outcome is going to be.

[Hagel praises Israeli entrepreneur Stef Wertheimer for giving jobs to Palestinians]

He understood a long time ago, we have to get underneath this. What is it that drives them… Unless we begin to direct our attention and focus on this underlying dynamic…as Stef has done, and others, then we will never ever get to the next stage of resolving the problem and getting to where Israel needs to be, should be, the Palestinians need to be, should be, a two state solution.

I believe that this new president and this new vice president and their new team that will take office January 20 are committed to make every effort to do that in different ways. I think they will examine new approaches. I can’t speak for this administration and wouldn’t dare to try. But I know people in this new administration and I know the commitment that they have. I know because I have talked directly for long lengths of time with President-elect Obama and Vice President-elect Biden about this. This is possible. This is doable.

But it must be recognized that the regional component of the Middle East– until we start to understand that you cannot take any of these challenges and deal with them in capsules, and in compartments. Iran has everything to do with the outcome in Iraq, the outcome of the Israeli Palestinian issue, of the Middle East itself, the stability of those Persian gulf countries, of oil. The Russians are connected into this. We have to set up a whole new framework of a Russian-US relationship.

India has their piece of this. And I believe– and I was in Afghanistan and South Asia twice this year– that until we are able to come up with a comprehensive policy on that strip of land from Iran through India– Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India– all four of those countries have to be dealt with within a larger regional context, and when we’re talking about Iran, I believe that is going to require some kind of security gift. I believe it’s going to require some easy-to-do breakthroughs like an interest section, commercial exchange of flights. We can do those kinds of things.

[Hagel then speaks of a Syrian-Israeli peace as “the logical next piece,” in which Iran could be engaged.] 

Remember, all this is imperfect. There’s no perfect solution or plan and never will be. It’s imperfect. But we need to keep a wider [unintelligible] view of all of this. Isn’t it better to work our way through some accommodation, and getting on these higher plateaus plane of resolution, so that we can get the larger dynamics in place so we can work on the underlying parts of the problem.We don’t have any choice in a world as complicated and interconnected as the world we live in today. If we do not make progress in the Middle East in the next four years, then we run the risk, not just in the Middle East but in South Asia, and every every area of the world that is in some state of turmoil, then we run the risk of the problem becoming so big, so overpowering, that no nation, no set of nations is capable nor will they have the capacity to deal with it. That’s the kind of risk we run.

[Hagel next speaks of the years 2008-2012 as an opportunity that will go away. He describes world population going from 6.5 billion to 8 billion people].

Think of the resources here, water, oil energy of all kinds. Think of what has to happen to the world over the next four years, in growth, opportunity. All of these things must be factored into this wider range policy.

I started my comments tonight, it leads back to the strategic epicenter in the Middle East of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. Why do I say that? More than any other reason, it is the one issue, the one issue alone, the Israeli Palestinian issue alone– fixing that alone is not going to solve every problem in the middle east. We understand that. We have religious hatred… we have regional tribal issues. Yes, all complicated. But that one issue, the Israeli-Palestinian issue shapes almost every other issue, not just the optics of it, but the reality of it, and it is allowed as it plays itself out to dominate relationships, to dominate the people who would like a different kind of world.

And I know there’s a lot of debate about whether this issue, ‘it’s not– it’s important, but it certainly doesn’t affect everything.’ It does. And I don’t know any other way to gauge this than you go out and listen to the leaders. You listen to Jewish leaders, listen to Arab leaders. And you sit down with all the leaders of those countries, I have many times, different leaders, and they will take you back to the same issue, right back to this issue. Now I’m not an expert on anything, I’m certainly not an expert on the Middle East, but I do listen, I do observe, and I’m somewhat informed. That informs me when the people of the Middle East themselves tell me, this issue has to be dealt with or there will not be a resolution of any issue in the Middle East.

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