Hagel 2011: Obama Wrong on Gadhafi, Libya 'Was a Mistake'

Hagel 2011: Obama Wrong on Gadhafi, Libya 'Was a Mistake'

In an interview with the Georgetown Public Policy Review in 2011, former Sen. Chuck Hagel indicated that he opposed President Barack Obama’s policy in Libya, arguing that “Libya was a mistake” and that President Obama been wrong to declare that then-dictator Muammar Gadhafi “has to go.” 

The interview has apparently not been reported previously during the extensive debate over Hagel’s confirmation to be Secretary of Defense.

Hagel’s position was consistent with his general skepticism about U.S. military action abroad. His concerns also echo those of some conservatives at the time, as well as the views of then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

One possibly inconsistency, however, is Hagel’s argument that Americans should question the government’s policy. As Hagel put it in the interview, warning that Libya could be a long conflict like the Afghanistan war:

We’re skirting with this situation in Libya. Point being: question the government. Question the policies. Question why society is being asked to give up a right. Question whether monitoring phone calls or bank accounts really keeps us safer. Let’s be careful there, let’s take a look. Those are issues that are still playing out.

At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Hagel took a different view, at least as regards the role of Secretary of Defense, assuring the committee that he would carry out whatever President Obama’s policy was, because it “doesn’t make any difference what I think.”

The relevant sections of the interview, which appeared in Volume 16 of the Georgetown Public Policy Review, are included below:

GPPR: Is there a conflict between improving our security and maintaining our liberties? Have we sacrificed freedom to improve our safety?

Chuck Hagel: That is very big issue that I don’t think the American people nor the Congress in the past ten years have paid enough attention to. I was one of four Republicans that put a hold on the Patriot Act Reauthorization [in 2005]. It’s not that we four Republicans or any of the Democrats were any less committed to the security of this country, but as I have often said, don’t ever give up one freedom in a tradeoff for security.

This was a big debate between the Bush White House and the Congress. President Bush felt that as commander in chief, he could make all the decisions about what was or was not important for protecting our country. So we had some pretty interesting exchanges with the Bush White House on these issues. But I think early on Congress abdicated much of its responsibility on these issues. I think history is not going to be kind to either the Bush Administration or Congress on these issues. I don’t think Congress did their job of asking the tough questions on how we got into these wars, and why, and how long we were going to be there. Some of us did ask questions, but they weren’t answered. Now ten years later we have more troops in Afghanistan than we ever did, we’re spending more money and we have more casualties. And we still don’t know how to get out of Iraq after eight years. We’re skirting with this situation in Libya. Point being: question the government. Question the policies. Question why society is being asked to give up a right. Question whether monitoring phone calls or bank accounts really keeps us safer. Let’s be careful there, let’s take a look. Those are issues that are still playing out.

GPPR: In your book, you mention the economy as a critical factor in our national security. You also discuss how economic inequalities help contribute to the growth of terrorism. How are those issues related?

Chuck Hagel: …Back to your point, it’s vitally important that we factor in all our instruments of power as we take positions in this part of the world that are vulnerable to terrorism. You’ve got to figure out what the cause of this or you never can fix it. We’re seen as oppressors and occupiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. The American people are shocked by that; how can that be? We’ve lost 6,000 Americans, tens of thousands have been wounded, all because we’re trying to help them. Yes, but we didn’t assess this very carefully because these are worlds that are so different from ours. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be involved, but we have to understand it better. And we can’t fix it all.

This is part of the debate on Libya — why get involved in Libya and not Sudan or the Ivory Coast? Their people are being massacred by their tyrants. Actually, there has not been a massacre in Libya. [President of the Council on Foreign Relations] Richard Haass testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee two days ago and said that the whole premise of Gadhafi going east and massacring his people was flawed. [See Footnote 1, below] There was never any evidence of that. Some of the president’s people said it might happen and so we can’t let that happen.

But we have to do a better job of how we are seen as well — reversing the optics. We have to consider how we’re viewed by this next generation of citizens in this region. They are combustible because 60 to 70 percent of these countries are under the age of 20. Where are they headed? What are they going to do? They have no education and no prospects. We’re only at the beginning of these problems.

GPPR: One of your criticisms of the war in Iraq was that we didn’t have our goals laid out at the outset. With Libya, it seems like we’re seeing that problem again. How do we define success in Libya? Are we in a position to meet with success?

Chuck Hagel: We can’t view this as a question of win or lose. There are too many cultural, ethnic, and religious dynamics at play for us to control. I told Secretary Gates the other day, it seems to me if there was ever a clear early 21st century case of the limitations of American power, it is our situation in Libya. And you can extrapolate from this situation in Libya across that entire area. After ten years in Afghanistan and eight years in Iraq, we still haven’t done whatever we were supposed to do. Great powers really do have limitations. We are very limited in what we can do in Libya.

One option being put forth by Lindsay Graham, John McCain and Joe Lieberman is that we ought to go into Tripoli, put boots on the ground, and go after Gadhafi. That’s one option. I don’t agree with it, though, because what will that get us? Ten years in another war? As Colin Powell said, it’s the Pottery Barn rule: you break it, you own it. We broke Iraq so we own it. Now people say, “We can’t just leave them.” Well, why didn’t we think about that? Why didn’t someone answer some of these questions about who is going to govern, how they will govern, what it will cost the U.S., how long are we going to be there, and what coalitions are going to come together? Now we’re living it.

We can’t go around the world and dictate and interfere and say we don’t like a certain leader like [Libyan ruler Moammar] Gadhafi. Someone will have to come into power after Gadhafi. Look at Iraq and [Prime Minister Nouri] Maliki (sic). We may end up with another dictator there. Someone will replace Gadhafi, but there’s a vacuum. There’s a vacuum in Egypt and Tunisia too, but those were different. Those were revolutions that were inspired by young people and driven by technology. It wasn’t anti-American or anti-Israeli.

We have very limited options on what we can do. Secretary Gates said to Congress three weeks ago, there’s a lot of loose talk about taking out air defense systems. Let me explain what that means. It means going to war. It means attacking another country. It’s complicated, it means resources — he went through the whole thing. What do you want to accomplish with that? Now we’re all befuddled. President Obama said Gadhafi must go. Is that our policy? Regime change? Well then, what are we going to do to fulfill our policy of no boots on the ground? Now the rebels are upset with us and with NATO because we’re not doing enough. This is all part of the complications and limitations. In my opinion, Libya was a mistake. The first mistake we made was the president saying Gadhafi has to go. When the president of the United States speaks, it echoes around the world. So what happens if Gadhafi stays? Do we lose face? Have we disappointed people saying that the U.S. and NATO didn’t fulfill what we said we would do?

The same questions I asked about Iraq and Afghanistan, you have to ask these.

I don’t know about Libya. You always have to be hopeful. In Libya, the rebels, we really don’t know who they are. We do have intelligence that says there is a combination of a lot of dangerous elements in that crowd, which is obviously why we’re not arming them. We know that there are unsavory characters that want to take Gadhafi down. These are good examples about how you can get yourself into a lot of trouble. This goes back to my point about limitations — we’re very limited in what we can actually do there. And this also goes back to my point about alliances. There’s not a situation in the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia, or that entire arc that is going to be resolved without enough members of an alliance coming together to work these things through.

[Footnote 1] 

In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on April 6, 2011, Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said, “It is not clear that a humanitarian catastrophe was imminent in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. There had been no reports of large scale massacres up to that point, and Libyan society (unlike Rwanda, to cite the obvious influential precedent) is not divided along a single or defining fault line. Gaddafi saw the rebels as enemies for political reasons, not for their ethnic or tribal associations. To be sure, civilians would have been killed in an assault on the city — civil wars are by their nature violent and destructive — but there is no evidence of which I am aware that civilians per se would have been targeted on a large scale.”