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IPS fellow Phyllis Bennis and Just Foreign Policy’s Robert Naiman discuss Hagel’s actions on Afghanistan, ISIS, and the Pentagon budget

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel resigned after less than two years on the job. He’s been leading efforts to deal with the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, plans for a troop withdrawal in Afghanistan, and of course the Pentagon budget. And now that he’s out, we want to take a look at his record on these issues.

Here to help us unpack all of this are our two guests.

Joining us from Washington, D.C., is Phyllis Bennis. Phyllis is a fellow and the director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Also joining us, from Illinois, is Robert Naiman. Robert is the policy director of Just Foreign Policy.

Thank you both for joining us.


DESVARIEUX: So Chuck Hagel’s resignation really comes only days after reports broke that President Obama signed an order to send more troops to Afghanistan through 2014. This is a real turn in position after the administration said there would be no combat role for U.S. troops in the upcoming year.

So, Phyllis, I want to turn to you. What was Hagel’s position on all of this? And how did he fare in terms of sticking to this policy plan of U.S. troop withdrawal?

BENNIS: Well, Hagel had come into office very much representing a traditional kind of realist approach to the role of the U.S. military. He was brought in to carry out what was thought to be the Obama plan for withdrawing troops, ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, reducing the military budget. And from the beginning he was under enormous pressure. There were a lot of allegations–and it’s hard to know which of them may be true, which ones may be exaggerated–that the very tight team close to President Obama, based on his old Chicago gang and his closest advisers, including people like Susan Rice and others, who opted for a more aggressive what’s sometimes called the liberal interventionist school that wants a much greater military role for almost every international challenge facing the U.S., that they had much more influence on the president than the defense secretary did. His claim was that he didn’t talk much at meetings because he spoke only when he was alone with the president.

But be that as it may, the job he was brought in to do is no longer what’s happening. He was brought in to oversee the withdrawal of troops and the ending of these wars. The wars are now escalating. There are more troops being sent on a longer mission to Afghanistan. U.S. troops have returned. We have boots on the ground again in Iraq. And the military budget is rising again. So the question of what Hagel’s role would have been was very unclear, and it’s in the context of that, plus the impact of the elections, where there was a great deal of criticism from the right on Obama for being responsible for the debacle going on in the Middle East, where wars are escalating. So it seems that Chuck Hagel is a likely scapegoat for some of those critiques as well.

DESVARIEUX: I’m glad you mentioned the budget, Phyllis, because in the past, Hagel really said that the Pentagon’s budget was just too bloated.

So, Robert, I want to get your take. How did the defense budget do under his watch?

ROBERT NAIMAN, POLICY DIRECTOR, JUST FOREIGN POLICY: Well, until recently, it didn’t mostly rise over the caps that Congress agreed to. And Hagel’s role wasn’t so much to cut the Pentagon budget as to be a defense secretary–or the proposed role has to be the defense secretary that would be okay with the budget being cut, be okay with the caps, not be endlessly complaining that the Pentagon didn’t have enough money. We saw, when Leon Panetta was made secretary of defense, people were hopeful that he would be an advocate for the Pentagon living within smaller means, and it turned out to be the opposite. Somebody was always complaining that the Pentagon didn’t have enough money. So Hagel’s role was supposed to be the guy that goes in and says, okay, well, we have smaller means now; how do we live with within these smaller means? And he largely and for the most part did do that.

But is Phyllis said, now we’re in a different world where, unfortunately, the Obama administration seems to be signaling that it’s not interested in those two missions anymore that they brought Hagel in for, not interested in ending the war in Afghanistan, not interested in cutting the Pentagon budget.

So far they have asked for a small increase in the Pentagon budget. But what I fear is that this is a opening signal for much bigger increase, perhaps with a new defense secretary. And we’ll see, when a new secretary is named, which direction they intend to go.

We’re maybe seeing speculation about Michèle Flournoy, who is considered the candidate of the Democratic hawks, of the Democratic neocons. I fear that if she is the candidate, that that is a signal that that’s the direction that the administration intends to move.

DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And you mentioned how the budget has grown and there’ve been sort of calls for more funding when it comes to fighting the Islamic State and that has been a way for them to get more funding back into the military.

So, Phyllis, want to get a sense of Hagel’s position on the Islamic State. And how would you sort of judge or grade him in terms of how he handled the situation as the leader of the Pentagon?

BENNIS: Well, I think that what’s important to recognize here is that he has not been the one speaking out on this very much. From the Pentagon, the lead voice has been the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, the top military guy, rather than the top civilian guy at the Pentagon, who would be Hagel. Hagel has essentially ceded the leadership of the Pentagon in the last six months or so to Dempsey, who has been urging a much more aggressive military posture both in Afghanistan–. There’s been this idea that the military wants to finish their job in Afghanistan and they don’t like the idea that they’re being withdrawn before finishing the job, whatever the job might be, and it’s really been Dempsey that’s led that. Hagel has been rather silent. Similarly, on the question of the decision to go to war against ISIS, escalating dramatically, sending troops back to Iraq, and essentially going back to war, reestablishing what we might call the global war on terror 2.0, has been done under Hagel’s watch, with some sense that maybe it wasn’t his first choice. But he certainly never said a word that would indicate that he opposed it. There’s no indication now that his leaving now is an indication of that either.

Every indication is that he was urged, maybe forced to resign by the Obama administration, again because what Bob said earlier: he was brought in to do one job, and what the Pentagon is doing now is a different job. He has not been a politically engaged secretary of defense in the sense that he has gone to the public with different views of what the militant role of the military should be. His job–and he has done it silently, largely–has been to implement the escalation that we’re now seeing. In the earlier period, the first year and a half or so of his tenure, he oversaw the reduction of troops from Afghanistan, but at a very slow rate. And there’s no particular sense that he was playing a major role in setting the policy. His role was more of implementing policy that was established by the White House.

DESVARIEUX: It seems to me, Phyllis–and I’ll get you to weigh in on this, too, Robert–is that there was sort of a lot of hope leading into Hagel being confirmed as secretary of defense, particularly on the left, because before being nominated for the post, Hagel was a Republican senator for the state of Nebraska, and he served in the Vietnam War and was the first enlisted combat veteran to serve as the defense secretary. He really came out being–although he voted in favor for the Iraq War, he was actually very critical of the Iraq War, even spoke of AIPAC and the Israeli lobby’s influence in Washington and how they intimidate Senators, and he came out saying that he was not an Israeli senator but a United States Senator, all these things that got people kind of excited that there might be a change of course in the Pentagon. So, for both of you–I’ll ask Robert first–was his term sort of a disappointment with–what’s your take?

NAIMAN: Yes, definitely it’s a disappointment, the fact that he’s leaving in disappointment and the things that we’ve been talking about. The big disappointment is that the missions that he was supposed to implement are being abandoned. That’s the big disappointment, the fact that we’re not, apparently, ending combat in Afghanistan, that we’re renewing combat in Iraq. And it seems likely that this means that Pentagon budget will now increase. That’s the disappointment. It’s the zigzag on policy that his departure represents.

The context to keep in mind for why people were optimistic or hopeful about this is that historically, Democratic presidents appoint right-wing secretaries of defense. There’s been kind of a rule that you’re allowed to have a lefty for secretary of labor, you’re allowed to have a lefty for health, but when it comes to the Pentagon, you have to appoint a right-wing Democrat to the Pentagon. So the idea that we would have a secretary of defense who’s actually–I mean, obviously right and left is kind of messy words here, but more skeptical of the use of military force than others in the administration, others in Washington. That really represented a potentially new development. So, yes, it’s disappointing that we’re not seeing that road followed through on, but the opposite road, you know, back to escalation of military force.

DESVARIEUX: How about you, Phyllis? What’s your take?

BENNIS: I also think that there were some illusions about Chuck Hagel. He had made some quite strong statements, unusually so, that Bob indicated–sorry. He had made some quite strong statements that you indicated about the role of AIPAC intimidating Senators, etc. And I think some people believed that that might herald a shift in U.S. policy towards Israel. It didn’t, and I think some of us thought it wouldn’t. But there was that sense that maybe it could.

And, again, the disappointment is in the context of could it have been worse. And the answer is, yes, it could have been worse. We could have had somebody who was urging greater militarization, greater funding of the Pentagon, etc. So in that context, the kind of realism of Hagel was a bit of a relief, perhaps, but it’s very similar to what we’re seeing now in terms of the claims from some Israel supporters that the Obama administration is criticizing Israel. Oh my God, they’re criticizing Israel. Well, they’re not criticizing Israel. And Hagel did nothing to change the military relationship between the U.S. and the Israeli military, did nothing to change the $3.1 billion a year that the U.S. gives directly to the Israeli military. For example, he never said this does not make us safer, this is not a military gain for us. He never said anything like that. He never changed the tight collaboration that continues to go on between the Pentagon and the IDF, the Israeli military. So I think given that reality, nothing that he said–may have been a little bit insulting to the Israelis or whatever–I think they were fine with it as long as the actual policy remained. And that’s what we saw with Hagel.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Phyllis Bennis and Robert Naiman, thank you both for joining us.

BENNIS: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow and the Director of the New Internationalism Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington DC.  Her books include Understanding ISIS & the New Global War on Terror, and the latest updated edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.