Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on How General James Mattis Can Stand Up to President Trump

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Chuck Hagel. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Chuck Hagel was Barack Obama’s Secretary of Defense in 2013 and 2014: a period spanning several international conflicts, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the apex of Syria’s civil war. Before that, he was a centrist Republican senator who was often maligned by the right flank of his own party. Few others know so intimately the challenges Trump’s DoD pick, General James Mattis, will face in his new job. Ditto the travails of centrist GOP senators, balancing party loyalty and patriotic duty. Now a senior adviser at Gallup and a distinguished executive-in-residence at Georgetown University, Hagel spoke to Daily Intelligencer by phone last week on everything from the real reason we need our NATO allies and the right way to fend off government leaks to why trade is actually a national-security issue.

Trump has promised a lot of foreign-policy measures that would obviously be disastrous. A lot of us have wondered, “So when do the brakes get put on? Who stops him from doing these things?” Do you think Mattis is a promising candidate?
First of all, I know General Mattis very well. I worked with him. I knew him when I was in the Senate, when I would often get to Iraq and Afghanistan and deal with Central Command commanders. As Secretary of Defense, I presided over Mattis’s swearing-in and his retirement. He’s a very accomplished, bright military leader. He has tremendous capability and experience with so much, and he does bring to that job a perspective that the president and vice-president and their closest advisers do not have. And it appears that the president has great confidence and trust in General Mattis. That’s key.

On the other hand, General Mattis has never been outside of the military culture. He’s been a Marine with a uniform on for 40 years. That isolates him. It doesn’t mean he hasn’t had exposure in NATO and other commands he’s had, but look at the experience base of past secretaries of Defense: Carter, Hagel, Panetta, Gates, Cohen, Aspin, Perry, Brown. It’s been a group of individuals with varied experience bases, wider than just our military.

A secretary of Defense has to deal with more than just military issues. He’s got to deal with the politics of that job every day: the politics of being in the White House, which are some of the roughest. Certainly the politics of Capitol Hill, behind closed doors and before committees and so on. The politics of the media.

Others have expressed concerns that Mattis’s appointment could erode civilian control of the military. Do you share that concern?
I do share the concern that we do not want to in any way erode that principle, which I think is vital. There hasn’t been an appointment like this, as you know, since General Marshall was secretary of Defense right after World War II. He was also Secretary of State. I’ve always thought General Marshall was one of the greatest Americans of the 20th century. He did a tremendous job. So it doesn’t mean that Mattis can’t do a good job with this, but I think people will be watching to make sure that that premise still holds and stays strong.

How did your civilian experience benefit you?
My experience in starting jobs, working with people, knowing how to find quality people helped me every day in trying to pick talented people at the Pentagon. My 12 years in the Senate and active politics helped me navigate the political landscape. Being chief of staff to a congressman gave me some perspective on what it takes for the staff to do their jobs.

Do you have any opinions about Steve Bannon’s appointment to the National Security Council? Does it seem to threaten the non-political nature of the job?
As far as I know, there’s never been a president who has actually formally appointed his chief political adviser to the principals committee like this. This goes back to how each president runs the show the way he wants to run it and how he feels most comfortable. But I don’t think you want political people in those meetings. I just don’t think it’s smart to do it, and I don’t think it adds anything. It could well inhibit conversation, because it implies that the President may be making national-security decisions based on political optics or political reasons. That should not be.

What do you make of the accounts of Trump being “at war with the deep state” — with the entrenched bureaucracy in intelligence and security agencies?
I actually only know what I read in the papers. I’m not in any kind of a loop anymore. I think this president has to be very careful on this issue, especially in publicly second-guessing, or even diminishing or dismissing, intelligence professionals. There are two reasons. One is that people who are in that business, like in any business of government, who are essentially public servants, do it mainly because they have a high purpose and they believe in things. When the leader of the country starts to diminish or question that, it is really dangerous, because it damages the internal culture.

And No. 2, it rattles the confidence and trust of the American people in the very institutions that are charged with carrying out vital intelligence work. It sends a bad signal all the way around. I’ve been disturbed by some of the things that the president has said. I know that has caused some deep concern within these agencies. That needs to get turned around.

Do you see any place for leaks? Any situations where they’re in the public interest?
There are always going to be leaks. I have watched, over the years, president after president come into office and say, “No more leaks. We’re going to stop the leaks.” That’s complete folly. You will never do that. The way I always conducted everything — when I was in the Senate, when I was secretary of Defense, any of these jobs I had — was to tell my staff, “Remember, there are no secrets in Washington.” You may get away, or somebody may get away with something for a while, but it will come out, because the tentacles are wrapped around agencies and individuals and government and everywhere so tightly and deeply that you will never stop the leaks.

That doesn’t mean that you just take a laissez-faire attitude and say, “Well, if they’re going to happen, they’re going to happen.” Absolutely not. You’ve got to maintain as much discipline as you can. Leaks are not good for the country, in the sense that they further destabilize our government and destroy the confidence and trust of the American people. But you have try to minimize it at the source.

Why do people leak? Let’s talk about that. One motive is stature within the media — getting a nice mention in the New York Times or some paper. But I have also found that the leaks come as a result of people believing that they’re being shut up or shut off in institutions, and that things are happening too secretly, and may be wrong. They feel obligated, morally or patriotically, to alert the media.

But there’s a better way to handle it. If a public official believes something’s going wrong, and the administration or whoever is covering it up, that individual has other options than just quietly giving it to the New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. They can go to their congressman or their senator quietly. We can’t have just a free-for-all.

It seems as though NATO might be one area where your views harmonize with Trump’s — yes? You’ve both said that other member countries need to be paying their fair share.
I don’t agree with how he did it, almost threatening them. I’m going to tell you what I think he does not understand. We’ve gotten as much out of NATO as any country in NATO has. Yes, we’ve paid the bill, but can you imagine if we would not have had NATO, and a unification Europe, in particular Turkey, because they were right there on the border of those Soviet socialist republics for all those years, connected into the Middle East, connected right into the Soviet Union.

That alliance has been hugely important for us. We’ve gotten so much out of it. If we would not have had that, and the adjunct of having the French and the British and the Italians and the Germans and their submarines and their ships and their intelligence adding to ours, we would have had to pay for that. All of it. NATO did as much as anything else to stabilize the world, and much of that was predicated on trade.

Yes, contributing 2 percent of GDP is there in the founding charter of NATO, and it’s something that every nation should aspire to, but here’s the other piece of that: You take those front-line countries, the Baltics all the way down to Poland and Romania and Bulgaria and Turkey, and what they add in value by virtue of their geography should give them some credit.

Should other member countries be doing better? Yes, Germany being a good example. They’re coming up. The British have been coming up. It’s fair, as [former Defense Secretary Robert] Gates has talked about, as Bush has talked about, as Obama has talked about, to continue to push for 2 percent, but I don’t agree with going beyond that.

So you think Trump’s calculation of the value is skewed.
That’s exactly right. It’s the same with TPP: He doesn’t understand the value of moving all these countries over there into our orbit, not to China’s. TPP is not just a trade deal. It’s bigger than that. It’s winning friends and influencing people and hearts and minds. He discounts the value of that completely, and I think it’s very dangerous. It just pushes people closer to China.

When you’re trading with people, you’re getting to know them. There are student exchanges. It means agriculture. It means technology. It means so many things where you’re back and forth with each other. You’re getting along.

What do you see on the horizon for Syria, and what do you think the Trump administration should do there?
I started going to Syria back in the late ’90s when I first started meeting with Hafez’s side, as I met with his son Bashar Assad. Syria is endemic to what’s going on in the Middle East. Those religious, cultural, ethnic differences are historic and are not going to be solved by the military — by anybody’s military. It’s going to take some platform of stability being established, and I think that’s where the Russians and the Iranians and the Turks were trying to go, where Kerry was trying to go, I think, too, to at least get some workable cease-fire. If you can do that with some common interest, you can start taking this to the next level.

The mistake the United States has made is starting with the principle that “Assad must go.” You can’t start with that issue because you’ll never go anywhere with it. The Russians and the Iranians have been clear.

Second, I think eventually you’re going to have to have some pan-Arabic military coalition with the governments to bring some stability, almost like a NATO or U.N. force. These are down the road. There are a lot of different opinions for the future. Should you break off parts of Syria and give it to the Kurds? The Turks will never agree with that. You’ve got all these different interests in play.

How about the situation in Yemen? What did you think of the recent raid?
I don’t know the facts on it. I was involved in a number of those when I was secretary of Defense, to get hostages and to different things. I can tell you they’re always complicated, they’re always dangerous, and they’re always risky. I’m not going to second-guess it.

The decision was reportedly made over dinner …
I heard that, yeah. I don’t know if it’s the case, but I’ll tell you, you can’t sit down around a dinner table with the president, and say, “Okay, let’s go do it.” When I was secretary of Defense with President Obama, these decisions were made by a full-blown National Security Council. You had the FBI director, the CIA director, the National Director of Intelligence there. The Attorney General was there. You had everybody in there.

This needs to really, really be worked through. Timing is always huge, because there’s always a certain amount of nature that plays into this. You’ve got to do these usually when there’s not a full moon, or you look for rain or dust storms, and then you’ve got to have good enough intelligence. It’s not just sitting down at a dinner table saying, “Well, we’re ready to go.” Obama took hours going through this, and consulted everybody, examined every piece, and still everything was risky.

If Trump does try to fulfill his more outlandish campaign promises — like welcoming a nuclear-arms race, killing the families of terrorists, starting a trade war — what role do you see for principled, moderate Republicans? If you would call them that. I mean people like McCain and Lindsey Graham.
I’m not sure you can categorize people the same way you could 20 years ago. There’s only one person I would consider a genuine, real, moderate Republican: Susan Collins. But I just don’t think those labels fit anymore. I think it’s better to talk about the role of the more center-right Republicans who take a more international approach to issues. The ones who are very pro-trade, very pro-engagement, are not hawks necessarily.

The Republican Party today is probably made up of four different variations of Republicans. You’ve got your domestic-focused Republicans, you’ve got your economic-focused Republicans, your internationalist Republicans, and your hawk Republicans. The Democrats are more cohesive in their philosophy.

But I don’t think you can really define Republicans and Democrats as all these different general labels that we used to, because you have a political world today that’s bifurcated in so many different ways. When I ran for Senate 20 years ago, everybody was connected to a party. That was a big deal, to get the party nomination and the primary and so on. Now it’s more about the individual: the individual brand of John McCain or Elizabeth Warren, or whomever it is.

Fine, but whatever category you put them in, people like McCain and Graham and Susan Collins risk being alienated by their parties if they resist the president’s agenda.
McCain, to answer your question, is a category unto himself. There is nobody like John McCain in the Senate. The POW status, a former presidential candidate, been around a long time. Whether you like him or dislike him, whether you respect him or not, he is an institution himself. Graham has made his bones by being McCain’s Sancho Panza. Lindsey doesn’t have the same stature that John does. There are others, but yes, people like McCain can make a difference, and I think will be a check in many ways on Trump going too far.

Ex-Pentagon Chief Hagel on How Mattis Can Stand Up to Trump