Kerry, Hagel Have Track Record of Wanting to Engage With America’s Adversaries

Patrick Goodenough | December 21, 2012 | 12:09am EST
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Former Sen. Chuck Hagel shakes hands with the man he is tipped to replace at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, at a convention in Washington on May 9, 2012. (DoD photo by Glenn Fawcett)

(Update: President Obama on Friday nominated Sen. John Kerry for secretary of state, citing an “extraordinarily distinguished” Senate career and calling him the “perfect choice to guide American diplomacy.” Obama has yet to nominate a secretary of defense.)

( – If speculation about President Obama’s likely nominees to head the departments of State and Defense proves correct, the next four years could see a renewed focus on his early drive to engage with hostile and repressive regimes.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), tapped to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, and former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Nebr.), viewed a strong contender for the Pentagon, both have a record of favoring engagement over isolation and sanctions when dealing with such governments.

The liberal Democrat and moderate Republican, both decorated Vietnam War veterans regarded as foreign policy experts, have called over a number of years for talks with the likes of Syria and Iran.

Should they become the mainstays of Obama’s new national security team, that thinking may add fresh impetus to an engagement push that faltered during his first term.

Campaigning for the presidency, then-Sen. Obama declared himself willing to meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, calling it “a disgrace that we have not spoken to them.”

Subsequent efforts to improve relations with those regimes were largely unsuccessful, however.

After North Korea’s long-range rocket launch this month, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was asked what Pyongyang’s defiance should tell the U.S. about the engagement policy.

“As we have tried around the world, there are times when leaders are courageous and are prepared to change course in the interest of their people, in the interest of their nation,” she replied. “We’ve seen that in Burma, for example …”

Hagel, who retired from the Senate in 2008 after two terms and is now a professor of national governance at Georgetown University, has long favored engagement with America’s adversaries.

As long ago as 1998 he was advocating talking to then Syrian President Hafez Assad. After returning from a visit to Damascus that fall, he was asked by a reporter for The Forward about the view that the U.S. should deal with Assad as it had with terrorists in Sudan and Afghanistan. (President Clinton had shortly beforehand ordered missile strikes against targets in the two countries after al-Qaeda bombed U.S. embassies in East Africa.)

“Anybody who takes that approach doesn’t understand the world much,” Hagel replied. “Peace comes through dealing with people. Peace doesn’t come at the end of a bayonet or the end of a gun.”

A decade later, he was still pushing the message.

“We should take the initiative to reengage Syria by returning the U.S. Ambassador to Damascus,” Hagel said in a much-cited 2008 speech.

Three years earlier, President Bush had withdrawn the previous envoy after Bashar Assad’s regime was suspected to have been involved in the car bomb assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Obama nominated an ambassador in 2010.

‘Angry parents and a misbehaving kid’

Hagel also called for talks with Iran.

“The United States should open a new strategic direction in U.S.-Iran relations by seeking direct, comprehensive and unconditional talks with the government of Iran, including opening a U.S. interests section in Tehran,” he said in the same speech.

“Engagement is not appeasement. Diplomacy is not appeasement,” he argued. “Great nations engage. Powerful nations must be the adults in world affairs. Anything less will result in disastrous, useless, preventable global conflict.”

“An unwillingness to engage adversaries only isolates them more and strengthens the hands of extremists,” Hagel wrote in his book published the same year, America: Our Next Chapter. “Although we strongly disagree with their [Iran's] nuclear policy, we cannot refuse to speak to them as if we were angry parents sending a misbehaving kid to his room without dinner.”

In line with that view, Hagel has a record of opposing sanctions against Tehran.

In 2001, he was one of only two senators to vote against extending the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (fellow moderate Republican Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana was the other).

In 2007, Hagel opposed a non-binding measure calling on the administration to designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization. The measure passed by a 76-22 vote, with Hagel and Lugar the only Republicans to join a group of Democrats – including Kerry – in voting “no.”

Hagel’s critics, including the Republican Jewish Committee, also see him as soft on Hezbollah and Hamas, designated by the U.S. as foreign terrorist organizations since 1996 and 1997 respectively.

In 2006 he was one of just 12 senators who did not sign a bipartisan letter urging the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. (Kerry did sign.)

During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in September 2008, Hagel pressed assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs David Welch on how the next administration should approach the terror groups.

“Hamas and Hezbollah are there. That is a reality,” he told Welch. “You note that Hamas may not be particularly beloved, but the fact is they are in control in Gaza. The fact is Hezbollah is firmly entrenched in Lebanon. What are we thinking about in the way of dealing with those realities?”


For his part Kerry – who has met with Assad half a dozen times, most recently in November 2010 – played a leading role in encouraging normalization of ties with Syria in 2009-10.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry, a strong advocate of engagement with Syria, holds talks with President Bashar Assad in Damascus on November 8, 2010. (Photo: SANA)

As late as March 2011 he was arguing that “Syria will change, as it embraces a legitimate relationship with the United States and the West and economic opportunity that comes with it and the participation that comes with it.”

Earlier in his career, Kerry favored loosening trade restrictions on communist regimes in Cuba and Vietnam, voting in 1996 against strengthening the trade embargo against Havana, and in 1994 sponsoring a measure to end the one against Hanoi.

Along with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kerry was a prime driver in the push to normalize relations with Vietnam.

Human rights and democracy advocates urged caution, but in 2001, as chairman of the Senate’s East Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee, Kerry blocked progress of legislation tying U.S. aid to Hanoi’s rights performance, which had passed in the House by a 410-1 vote. He argued that “denying aid to Vietnam would actually slow human rights improvements.”

Another communist regime Kerry has wanted to engage with is the one in Pyongyang.

During his 2004 presidential campaign, Kerry wrangled with Bush over North Korea, with the incumbent saying holding bilateral talks with Kim Jong-il would harm multiparty efforts to resolve the nuclear weapons standoff and Kerry declaring his intention once in the White “to immediately set out to have bilateral talks with North Korea.”

If nominated and confirmed, Kerry and Hagel look likely to work well together.

During one of the last Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings attended by Hagel in the fall of 2008, Kerry took time out to praise his Republican colleague.

“I want to express my deep personal admiration for Senator Hagel, who has suffered the obvious and expected brickbats from members of his own party on occasion for speaking the truth as he saw it,” he said.

Hagel, Kerry continued, had been “unrelenting in his willingness to stand up and put the interests of our country and common sense and sense of duty and responsibility to the Constitution way ahead of any kind of politics whatsoever.”

“We’ve been very, very lucky to have him as a member of this committee and I consider myself very lucky to have him as a colleague and have him as a friend.”

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