I have been focused on the Iranian nuclear threat for more than five years. After I left my position as ambassador to Germany and returned to the private sector, I joined former Senator Chuck Robb in co-chairing a project on Iran at the Bipartisan Policy Center.
This organization has been on the frontlines of those ringing the alarm bells about Iran. We issued our first report in 2008 entitled, “Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy toward Iranian Nuclear Development.” I was involved in producing a second, more urgent report in 2009 entitled, “Meeting the Challenge: Time is Running Out.”
After I left the Bipartisan Policy Center and returned to the Senate, the organization produced two more reports on the subject, each more urgent than the last, and each demanding clearer, more vigorous and determined U.S. policy to avert this danger.
Each year since the beginning of my involvement in this Bipartisan Policy Committee project, I have become increasingly worried about Iran’s continuing irresponsible and dangerous behavior, and the administration’s inconsistent, unsure policies to respond to the growing threat.
Preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capability is the most urgent matter facing U.S. and international security. The consequences of a nuclear weapons-capable Iran are not tolerable, not acceptable, and must motivate the most powerful and effective efforts possible to prevent it from happening.
Based on his record as a U.S. senator and subsequent public statements, I do not believe Senator Hagel agrees with this assessment.
Since returning to the Senate, I have joined many colleagues in pressing for a robust, comprehensive, three-track effort to raise the stakes for the Iranian regime and compel it to live up to its commitments and halt its weapons program.
The first track is enhanced diplomatic efforts. We have pressed the administration to create, invigorate, and motivate a much enhanced international coalition devoted to the same objective: to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.
This does not mean simply repeated outreaches to the Iranian regime itself to engage them in dialogue. The Obama administration came into office promising such discussions, but this has gone nowhere, nor have any other diplomatic efforts, either unilateral or multilateral. All such diplomatic efforts have failed in achieving the goal of preventing Iran from its continuous and relentless pursuit of developing nuclear weapons.
Senator Hagel, whose life story brings him to a justifiable reliance on dialogue before force – a preference we all share – has, in my opinion, an exaggerated and unrealistic belief in what dialogue and diplomacy can accomplish. This is especially so when the dialogue partner is a revolutionary regime of zealots with a self-declared historical mission, rather than rational leaders of a nation state.
Senator Hagel has long called for direct, unconditional talks with the Iranian regime – not to mention direct talks with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria as well. He has pressed that such talks should proceed without the backing gained from other, more forceful, credible options. This approach is far too weak to be effective and reveals a person less committed to results than this critical moment demands.
The second track of a comprehensive search for solution is sanctions. I have supported all legislative efforts to create and impose both unilateral and multilateral sanctions on Iran, leveraging similar commitments from our friends and allies when possible, and pursuing unilateral sanctions when necessary. Indeed, it has been our willingness to impose sanctions by unilateral action that arguably has stiffened the spine of the international community and made increasingly harsh multilateral sanctions regimes possible.
Senator Hagel does not see it that way. He repeatedly voted against sanctions legislation, even opposing those aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which at the time was bombing our troops in Iraq. He has long argued against sanctions imposed by the United States absent an international judgment by others that we are doing the right thing. He has not seen the connection between American firmness, determination, and leadership – and international acquiescence.
It is his instinct to give a veto to Brussels or Paris, or even Moscow and Beijing. I cannot support the nomination of a secretary of defense who shows such deference to foreign politicians.
Senator Hagel has famously agreed publically that the United States is a bully. I assume that our reliance on unilateral sanctions when necessary may fit his definition of bully. I cannot possibly agree.
The third track of a comprehensive approach to this crucial problem is open discussion of, and early preparation for, military options. It has become increasingly clear over the past several years that diplomacy and sanctions alone are too weak to compel Iranian compliance with the international community's demands.
A frank discussion of military options and preparations give credibility to the rest of our strategy. No one should suppose that these steps mean anything other than preparing the ground for the logical, necessary access to measures of last resort.
At the Bipartisan Policy Center I participated in an exhaustive analysis of all the means and consequences of potential military action against Iran's nuclear weapons program. There were no war advocates among us. Nevertheless, if it is true that a nuclear weapons-capable Iran is "unacceptable," as now four U.S. presidents have publically declared, then our nation and the international community as a whole must see with vivid clarity what measures remain should the first two tracks fail.
And the Iranian regime must be especially clear-eyed and non-delusional about those potential consequences should it not change its behavior. Indeed, to give the diplomatic and sanctions tracks the essential credibility they require, the military option must be entirely believable, if as the president has repeatedly said, Iranian possession of nuclear arms capability is “unacceptable.”
I cannot conclude that Senator Hagel views the military option in this credible way. Indeed, he has maintained in recent years that, “a military strike against Iran is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.”
Many of us have examined Senator Hagel’s on-the-record comments carefully and parsed each one to determine what his views on these important subjects actually are. In the meantime, he has hastened to apparently amend the record so that his advocates can point to more recent statements that seem to negate the earlier ones.
But this is not a court of law and we are not looking for admissible evidence. Rather we are defining the basis for our own judgments on how the full pattern of words and behavior define the views and likely future behavior of the nominee.
I have concluded that when Senator Hagel pays lip service now to the contention that “all options are on the table,” it does not reveal his real, instinctive, and strong disinclination to consider military force if all other options fail and it becomes necessary.
For me, that is very nearly a disqualifying position for a secretary of defense.
A related concern is what I believe to be Senator Hagel’s views about the so-called “containment option.” This is related to his nearly notorious views about nuclear proliferation in general. He has famously said that “the genie of nuclear weapons is already out of the bottle, no matter what Iran does.”
I fear that Senator Hagel holds the mistaken view that a nuclear-armed Iran is more tolerable than the consequences of going to war to prevent it. This is a dangerously corrosive idea.
Indeed, my concern was heightened this morning when Senator Hagel, in testimony before the Armed Services Committee, referred twice to his support for containment. Only when someone handed him a note presumably reminding him that the administration’s formal position did not support containment did he correct himself and say he didn’t support it either.
What are we to conclude relative to what he truly believes and where he actually stands on a number of issues vital to our national security?
The supreme fallacy of the containment option as modified is that it severs the spine of all of our friends and allies who are justifiably appalled by the contemplation of real military action. They will eagerly leap toward a containment option should others fail. But we must all see clearly that, in fact, containment means toleration.
A nuclear weapons-capable Iran that we believe can be contained is one that we are therefore prepared to tolerate. This is an illusion and one that makes our task much harder. If others, especially Iran, but also including our allies and other coalition partners, come to believe that we would consider ever tolerating a nuclear Iran because it can somehow be contained, then none of our efforts to prevent it will work.
This is why a nominee for secretary of defense who is less than firm on this key point is a dangerous choice.
It has been said by Senator Hagel’s supporters that, whatever his personal views and past statements on these important issues, as secretary he will toe the line; he will not be making these basic policies himself. In other words, those of us who find his policies objectionable are encouraged to support the nominee despite his views, not because of them.
I cannot bring myself to support a nominee based on the assumption that his own views will become irrelevant once he is under the policy yoke imposed by the White House.
Finally, the most worrisome consequence of confirming Senator Hagel to be Secretary of defense is something that the Ayatollahs in Tehran and I can agree on: The confirmation will tell the Iranian regime that their fear of US military action in Iran is now unjustified. They can rest more comfortably that their pursuit of nuclear weapons is less likely no to provoke the military option that, until recently, may have seemed more credible.
The Iranians will therefore feel less constrained in pursuing their dangerous nuclear ambitions. That – more than any other reason – is why I am voting no on the Hagel nomination.