Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday that the Pentagon should play a more limited role in future U.S. foreign policy. (Saul Loeb / Getty Images)
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday that the American people have grown skeptical about using military force and the Pentagon should play a more limited role in future U.S. foreign policy.
Hagel pointed specifically to public reaction this summer to President Obama’s threat to launch missile strikes on Syria, when polls showed Americans overwhelmingly opposed an attack and Congress balked at granting authorization.
“There was a pretty clear message on where the people and Congress are on using military force,” Hagel said at a national security conference in Washington.
“I do think this Congress is probably more cautions,” Hagel said. “No more wars, no more Middle East — I’m putting it very simply but, you know ... Congress reflects the people. That is the way democracy works.”
In an sit-down interview with Defense One editor Kevin Baron, Hagel noted that the official government hierarchy outlined in the Constitution ranks the secretary of defense behind the secretaries of state and treasury.
“That is as it should be,” Hagel said, suggesting that the military should not dominate U.S. policymaking, as some experts suggest it has at times during the past decade.
“Our role is to be part of helping shape a foreign policy,” Hagel said. “We are but a component and a tool.”
Hagel countered critics who equate diplomacy with weakness and said working with potential adversaries such as Russia and China is in America’s best interests.
“I believe in America’s engagement in the world,” he said. “Engagement is not surrender. Engagement is not appeasement. Engagement is not negotiation.”
At the same time, he said, “You always keep a ready capable military that is second to none in the world. I don’t think we would have any kind of opening [in Syria] without the real live threat of military force against Syria,” referring to that nation’s agreement to dispose of its chemical weapons stockpile.
Hagel outlined his own skepticism about the use of military force, a view that drew criticism during his Senate confirmation hearings earlier this year.
“Do I believe we should go invade and occupy every country where we don’t get our way? No, I don’t think think that is what America’s about. ... I don’t think that is the way you solve problems.
Hagel evoked his own experience in combat when he earned two Purple Hearts for wounds suffered while serving as an enlisted infantry soldier in Vietnam in 1968.
“There no glory in war,” he said. “There’s only suffering.”