'Iran Is The Big Winner': Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel On Latest Developments After Soleimani Assassination

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Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

Chuck Hagel, former Obama administration defense secretary and former Republican senator to Nebraska, says he’s not sure if the Trump administration had “any strategy” for the assassination of Iran’s Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil.

He says if the Iraqi Parliament’s vote to expel U.S. troops from the country goes through, it would be a “huge defeat” with consequences that would reverberate across the Middle East.

“I think you have to always remember that actions have consequences and those consequences include unintended consequences,” he says. “So, you know, we'll see how this plays out. But right now, it looks like Iran is the big winner.”

Hagel says he’s searching for clarity on the Trump administration’s strategic objective for the airstrike, and why Congress was unaware of the controversial move.

“What is really the purpose other than just killing the guy?” he says.

Interview Highlights

On whether killing Soleimani was a mistake

“Well, I have not seen the intelligence, obviously. But yes, Soleimani was an enemy of the United States, was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans. At the same time, there's always a smart way and a not-so-smart way to deal with these things. And I'm not sure from what I've seen the last few days, [if] this administration had any strategy. What's the game plan? What is the strategy? Where is this going? What about second- and third-order consequences?”

On if he considered killing Soleimani while secretary of defense

“Well, you always have contingencies and options, especially on people with profiles like Soleimani. But again, those contingencies and options have to be thought through and carefully analyzed. There is no guarantee in anything you do. But first of all, you want some specific strategy behind it. ... It always should fit into what I think is a diplomatic strategic objective. If it doesn't fit that diplomatic strategic objective, then I think it's very questionable whether you do it or not.”

On the Trump administration’s reasoning for the killing

“Well, then I heard Secretary [Mike] Pompeo say yesterday the objective was deterrence. So which is it? And we haven't seen the intelligence. Now, I'm probably not going to see it, but members of Congress ... I saw Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on television yesterday, and he said it doesn't live up to the administration's claim. So we need a lot more clarity on this, and that's another aspect of this, that Congress is completely vacant in this. President Trump has disregarded not just on this occasion with this event, but the last three years. They're inconsequential. And that's not the way the Constitution is supposed to work. That's not the way it does work. Article 1 of the Constitution is the Congress is supposed to be three co-equal branches of government.”

On whether killing Soleimani was legal

“Well, it depends on what your interpretation is. Now, the United Nations has said it was a violation of human rights. He was a member of a standing foreign nation, sovereign nation's government. [Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi and all the rest were terrorists. And so the United Nations already said it was illegal and that it was a hit that violated human rights. He's an enemy of the United States. I mean, there is a strong case to be made for that. But the point is that it was a targeted hit, very targeted. Plus, the other part of this, it doesn't get a lot of attention, it's getting attention in Iraq, and that is the other general that was killed alongside Soleimani, [was] an Iraqi. And he was killed on Iraqi soil. The United States is supposed to abide by the agreement it has with the Iraqi government that the Iraqi government would sign off on any combat actions and missions that the United States would take. Well, that obviously didn't occur.”

On the Trump administration saying it wants to de-escalate the situation

“What I know what they've said about de-escalation, but I don't see in their words or deeds any de-escalation. I see nothing but escalation. I mean, you're sending more than 4,000 more troops over there. You've been sending thousands more last year. I mean, that's not de-escalation. One of the things you could do to de-escalate is for the president to stop tweeting and talking about we're going to hit 52 Iranian sites — some of them historical, cultural [sites], which, in fact, would be illegal — and stop baiting the Iranians like that. That'd be a good start.”

On what this means for stability in the region

“I don't know how ... the president makes his decisions. I don't know if they're on a whim or gets up in the morning and he just tweets it, ‘This is way it's going to be.’ I know Secretary Pompeo and others have said, ‘No, there's strategy behind it and we've been meeting.’ But from what I know and I've been told by people who do know something about it, he makes his own decisions. I mean, he'll listen to other people, but that doesn't make any difference. He'll make his own decision. As he's often said himself, ‘I go with my own gut. I trust my gut more.’ And also, as he said before, ‘I know more than my generals and I know more than my intelligence people.’ Well, if he really believes that and he's acting that out, that's pretty dangerous.”

On how Iran could retaliate against the U.S.

“Well, Iran possesses significant asymmetric weapons, meaning it's got its Quds Forces, its Revolutionary Guard, Hezbollah, popular majority militia forces, Shia militia forces all over the Middle East, and they have significant cyber capability, and that's probably as big a threat as anything. You've got the Persian Gulf where so much commerce and oil come down through that narrow Straits of Hormuz. They've got capabilities there with their Navy. I mean, it is presenting the Defense Department a lot of big challenges because of all those asymmetric capabilities that Iran possesses, they can hit really in any location at any time by different means.”

On if the impeachment trial against Trump should go forth as planned

“I think it has to. I mean, we're the greatest nation on Earth. Come on. We can't walk and chew gum at the same time? I mean, impeachment is a big deal. This president was impeached. Now, I know a lot of people don't like it, don't like the way it was done, but it was done legally, lawfully within the boundaries of the Constitution. He was impeached. That didn't mean he was convicted. But the next step is then to try that impeachment in the Senate. I don't think you can stop these things. I mean, again, that's a victory for Iran. I mean, I think that the rest of the world will look at us laugh that as great a nation is we are, we can't do a couple of things at the same time? We can't govern our own country internally at the same time, we can deal with foreign policy issues and national security issues? I mean, I just think it's ridiculous to even be talking about.”

Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on January 6, 2020.


Jeremy Hobson Former Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.



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