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Sep 24th, 2009

On Wednesday, September 23, 2009, former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Distinguished Professor in the Practice of National Governance at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., delivered the Third Annual Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn. The address was titled after Hagel’s recent book, America: Our Next Chapter — Tough Questions, Straight Answers.

Listen to audio of Sen. Hagel’s address

Former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, Distinguished Professor in the Practice of National Governance at Georgetown University, delivers the third annual Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture at St. Johns University, Collegeville, Minn., Sept. 23, 2009. (Photo: Silu Ma / The Record)

Former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), Distinguished Professor in the Practice of National Governance at Georgetown University, delivers the Third Annual Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture at St. John's University, Collegeville, Minn., Sept. 23, 2009. (Photo: Silu Ma / The Record -- CSB|SJU)

Hagel Promotes Civility

By Hannah Wittmeyer
The Record (CSB|SJU student newspaper)
September 25, 2009

After a delayed flight and a hearty lunch consisting of a Snickers bar, former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) was eager to speak with and discuss foreign policy, public life, and the ills of partisan politics with Johnnies and Bennies on Wednesday afternoon.

Following a senior seminar discussion about war, Hagel also met with members of the International Affairs club and affirmed his confidence in President Obama in regard to current policy considerations in Afghanistan. In an unstable world, the former senator stresses proper engagement and dialogue as a means for cooperation.

“Force is an effective instrument of power,” he stressed, “but force cannot be the centerpiece of your foreign policy.”

Hagel shares a striking parallel with Eugene McCarthy, the honored senator and St. John’s alumnus for whom the McCarthy Center is named. As McCarthy publicly criticized the Johnson administration’s foreign policy during the Vietnam War, Hagel was among the first Republican senators to criticize the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq.

His lecture in the Stephen B. Humphrey theater boasted nearly full attendance by students and faculty. The former senator, now teaching foreign policy at Georgetown University, emphasized the importance of civility, honesty, and integrity in politics. Those were qualities McCarthy likewise upheld.

Adamant that young people represent the best of humanity, Hagel said he was impressed with the many avenues of civic participation that students engage in, including volunteering. In response to a St. John’s student’s question, Hagel said the problem with the state of public service is the nasty categorization it receives because of a few bad people. He stressed moving away from partisan politics.

“Public discourse has gotten so wrong, so rude, so embarrassing, that it debases our system and debases us all,” Hagel said.

Rather than tearing others down, the former senator stated that politics depends on constructive dialogue and debate. He urged any CSB|SJU students considering public office or foreign services to bring back this lost art to politics. Regarding foreign policy, Hagel remarked that major threats such as the environment, nuclear weapons, pandemics, and terrorism depend on nations working together to build seamless networks of intelligence and relationships. …

With much conflict and debate surrounding the recent policy change considerations in Afghanistan, which may include a U.S troop increase, Hagel encouraged Obama to examine each available option. He believes there is nothing as passionate or deep as war, making the consequences dangerous and usually unintended. Hagel himself is a Vietnam War veteran.


Hagel: Rudeness in Politics Must End

By Dave Aeikens
St. Cloud Times
September 24, 2009

COLLEGEVILLE — Former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said the political discourse in the country has turned so poor that it threatens democracy and America’s international standing.

Hagel spoke for about 40 minutes Wednesday night at the Eugene J. McCarthy Lecture at St. John’s University. Hagel, who served in the Senate from 1997-2009, was the first Republican senator to speak out against the Iraq war.

“I am concerned our country has lost a good deal of what Eugene McCarthy is all about,” Hagel said.

Addressing an audience of more than 400 students and other guests that included McCarthy’s family and former U.S. Sen. Dave Durenberger and former U.S. Rep. Mark Kennedy, Hagel questioned whether the country will allow rudeness to take over the political system.

“Public discourse has gotten so raw, so rude, so embarrassing it has really debased our system,” Hagel said.

He said any fool can stand up and scream and any fool can stand up and call names.

“It takes conscience and courage to find a solution to a problem,” Hagel said.

The world is as combustible and interconnected as it has ever been, Hagel said. But the U.S. has great capacity to solve the problems of the world.

“We will never get there if we so debase the process we use to get there,” Hagel said.

Hagel pointed to the tenor in the debate on health care policy changes as an example of where the public discourse has gone off the tracks. He said the screaming and rudeness has to stop.

“This is not what a civilized society does,” Hagel said.

Hagel said McCarthy, a St. John’s graduate from Watkins who served in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, worked to solve problems and disagreed with others in a respectful and honorable way. McCarthy in 1967 was among the first to challenge President Lyndon Johnson, a fellow Democrat, on the U.S. policy in Vietnam.

“That is another dimension on why McCarthy was so important at a very important time,” Hagel said.

Hagel said President Obama is confronting more problems than Abraham Lincoln. [*]

He said he has seen how the country has lost its ability to self-govern because it is paralyzed by partisanship.

“We have to bring some semblance back of a governing coalition in the country,” Hagel said.

* My recollection is that Sen. Hagel said President Obama confronted more problems upon taking office than any president since Abraham Lincoln – including Franklin D. Roosevelt, who did not inherit two wars, like Obama.


Chuck Hagel on Iraq and What Needs to be Done with Iran

U.S. Commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus, center, shares a laugh with then-presidential candidate Barack Obama and Sen. Chuck Hagel during an aerial tour of Baghdad upon their arrival in Iraq on July 21, 2008. (Photo credit: Reuters / SSG Lorie Jewell / U.S. Army — via MinnPost)

By Nick Hayes [*]
September 22, 2009

“I wish someone had told me when I was sitting on a burning tank in a Vietnamese rice paddy that I was fighting for a lost cause just to save a president’s legacy.” — Chuck Hagel, “America: Our Next Chapter” (2008).

Chuck Hagel, two-term senator from Nebraska is coming to Minnesota, and there’s a bit of irony behind this story.

A combat veteran who served in the most deadly years of the Vietnam War and later a staunch defender of the war against its critics, Hagel comes to Minnesota at the invitation of the center dedicated to a Minnesota senator whose name was a synonym for opposition to the Vietnam War. …

The Republican Hagel and Democrat McCarthy have at least one political trait in common. Both dared to stand alone challenging their respective political parties and an incumbent president of their own party over a failed war — Vietnam, for McCarthy; Iraq, for Hagel. Although he is likely to draw more Democrats than Republicans to his talk, both would hear from Hagel a voice they have almost forgotten: a Midwestern Republican with feet planted firmly in the center of American politics.

If you have any doubts about the Republican right’s attitude toward Hagel and his views on the war in Iraq, tune in to Rush Limbaugh, who refers to him as “Senator Betrayus.” (Limbaugh coined the phrase to discredit Hagel, by the way, well before used it for Gen. David Petraeus.) …

Modesty and candor

Last Friday, Hagel took time out for a telephone interview with me on foreign policy. Hagel can pack enough knowledge and expertise into a few minutes of conversation about foreign policy to qualify for tenure as a professor of international relations.

Yet … Hagel displays a modesty, candor and willingness to listen that is about as far away from right-wing talk radio as a conversation can get. …

There is another part of Hagel’s biography that is never far below the surface in his conversation and writing. In 1967-1968, he served in the U.S. Army infantry in Vietnam during the Tet offensive.

Patriotic Nebraska boys, he and his younger brother, Tom, volunteered, served together side by side. They saw each other near-fatally wounded, and each at one time had to treat the wounds of the other. They brought home five Purple Hearts, somehow got out of Vietnam alive, went on to live very different lives, and came to disagree sharply with each other on the war.

The story of the Hagel brothers’ war and the post-war years forms the most unforgettable section of Myra MacPherson’s “Long Time Passing: Vietnam and the Haunted Generation” (1985).

Tom and Chuck Hagel shown in Vietnam in a video screen grab from MSNBC’s “Hardball.” (Photo credit:; image not part of MinnPost article)

Unlike his brother Tom, who became a war protestor and political dissident on the left, Chuck became a conservative, successful entrepreneur and defender of the Vietnam War.

He held that view for decades until he could not deny the evidence that he had been duped by his government. In 1997 he heard a tape recording. NPR broadcast a tape from a 1964 conversation between President Lyndon B. Johnson and Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia. LBJ admits that he can’t see a way in which the war could be won. Yet he’s not about to accept the political fallout for being the first U.S. president to lose of war.

In Hagel’s recent writings and his public talks, he returns often to the Johnson/Russell conversations.

“The duplicity and dishonesty,” Hagel explained to me, “that I heard in these tapes has affected me to this day and prove the lesson of Vietnam: You must have honesty and you cannot bog down great armies in complicated parts of the world that you don’t’ understand.”

The lesson was not learned. Three years ago, Hagel called the Bush administration’s war in Iraq “an arrogant self-delusion reminiscent of Vietnam.”

At best, he envisions a situation in Iraq now that offers us only the possibility of “an honorable withdrawal.”

First of all, this requires recognition that our policy toward the Iraq war is “not a partisan debate,” he said. Republicans have to accept that there is no military solution. Democrats have to accept that perhaps as many as 20,000 U.S. troops will remain in Iraq indefinitely.

Second, he said, an international approach must replace the unilateral approach of the Bush years.  This approach, moreover, may require a role for the UN as a mediator along the fault lines of the Iraqi conflict — the tensions between the government in Baghdad and the Kurdish region in the north, the Sunni Shiite divide and conflicts of the sharing of oil and hydrocarbon-fuel revenues.

Third, Hagel suggested, we should try a little more humility in our goals. “We must accept that every policy is going to be flawed,” he warns, “and that extremism and terrorism is never, never going to be fixed.”

Problems with Iran

Hagel is too modest to predict the long-term future of Iraq. He’s inclined to believe the predictions of a few of Iraq’s neighbors, which they share in private, if not in public. “Most likely,” he suggests passing along their views, “we will end up with an Iraqi strongman who may or may not be pro-Western.”

If the war in Iraq was the greatest catastrophe in the history of recent U.S. foreign policy, Hagel suggests that our policy — or our lack of a policy — toward Iran may be a far greater catastrophe waiting to happen in the near future.

My first mention in our conversation of Iran immediately prompted Hagel to say that “engagement is not appeasement.” In one sentence, he turned the logic of the Bush administration policy toward Iran on its head.

His specific recommendations read like a clear, crisp and brief memo: (1) The U.S. must continue to work with the U.N. Security Council to keep up the pressure on Iran on the nuclear issue; (2) The U.S. “should offer a wide-ranging diplomatic agenda for bilateral negotiations with Iran”; (3) The U.S. needs to recognize that Iran has a role to play in the Persian Gulf and our policy must involve Iran’s neighbors in the region. Finally, we need to remember that even the best of policies can fail and “containment and confrontation” may be our last and final resort.

There’s a clarity and a healthy dose of Midwestern common sense to Hagel’s ideas. There’s also a problem. As former GOP Sen. Dave Durenberger explained, “Hagel’s problem is there is so little center left in the Washington politics of the 21st century.” It’s not just his problem. It’s our problem. …

[This article has been excerpted. Read the complete article at MinnPost.]

* Nick Hayes, Ph.D., is Professor of History and University Chair in Critical Thinking at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.


Related reports on this site

Chuck Hagel and his brother Tom sit on an armored personnel carrier in Vietnam. (Photo credit: AP)

Endorsement: Sen. Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense (Dec. 21, 2012)

Chuck Hagel McCarthy Lecture (Sept. 24, 2009)

Sen. Chuck Hagel Speaks in Minnesota (Sept. 23, 2009)

Sen. Chuck Hagel on National Defense (Sept. 3, 2009)

Chuck Hagel to Deliver Eugene McCarthy Lecture (July 29, 2009)

Hagel Lambasts Limbaugh (Nov. 19, 2008)



After years of war, Iraqis hit by frenzy of crime (AP, Sept. 21, 2009) — The kidnappers holding an Iraqi auto mechanic’s 11-year-old son gave him just two days to come up with $100,000 in ransom. When he could not, they were just as quick to deliver their punishment: They chopped off the boy’s head and hands and dumped his body in the garbage. The boy’s final words to his father came in an agonizing phone call. “Daddy, give them the money. They are beating me,” Muhsin Mohammed Muhsin pleaded a day before he was killed. … Full story

Image: Relatives pray at a memorial
Relatives pray Sept. 9, 2009 at a memorial for Muhsin Mohammed Muhsin, who was beheaded by kidnappers in Baghdad, Iraq. (Photo credit: Karim Kadim / AP)


FROM THE ARCHIVES: One Year Ago — September 24, 2008

After the Primary Election: Day 15

Medics tend to an Iraqi man injured after a roadside bomb detonated on Sept. 23, 2008 in Baquba, northeast of Baghdad. Among several bombings reported across Iraq, the improvised explosive device (IED) injured eight people. (Photo credit: Stringer / AFP / Getty Images)

One year ago today, on the 15th day after losing my 2008 primary challenge against U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann in Minnesota’s 6th Congressional District, in line with my focus on national security, I reported on the downing of a U.S. drone amid strains between the United States and Pakistan over cross-border incursions; the attempted assassination of the Kabul police’s head of criminal investigations in Afghanistan; and security incidents and U.S. casualties in Iraq.

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