Hagel on Iraq, Iran and U.S. Domestic Politics

I had the pleasure of introducing Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) at a Cato-sponsored event earlier today up on Capitol Hill.

The event was promoted as “America’s Next Steps in Iraq,” and the senator shared his insights from the very latest happenings in the Senate, including the pseudo all-night debate, and the failure to achieve cloture on the Levin-Reed amendment. Sen. Hagel also had some choice comments about the Bush White House’s bizarre attitudes with respect to Congress’s role in shaping foreign policy, and he admitted that he wasn’t comfortable with the foreign policy views of the leading GOP presidential candidates. He deftly parried a question pertaining to his own political plans, other than to say that he will make a decision about his future in the next few weeks.

I was most struck, however, by his comments regarding Iran. Hagel stressed the need for engagement with Iran, along the lines of what was put forward by the Iraq Study Group late last year, and generally consistent with what Cato scholars have argued (e.g. here and here).

In a general sense, he pointed out that the problems of the Middle East will not be resolved by pushing Iran to the sidelines. They are a major power in the region. We might wish it otherwise, but that is the reality. And while our interests often diverge, they have converged in the past (as in when Tehran assisted us in deposing their bitter enemy the Taliban in the fall of 2001) and they are likely to converge in the future. For example, one could certainly argue that they are the one country in the region that is at peace with the current composition of the Iraqi government. Diplomacy is about capitalizing on common interests; focusing on areas of potential cooperation while at the same time not losing sight of the important differences. Hagel noted that Ronald Reagan, after all, was not above negotiating with the leaders of the country he deemed “the evil empire.”

Hagel’s thoughtfulness, integrity and courage are needed in the Congress. They would be of equal or greater value on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.