Hagel on Politics and War

When politicians write books, they usually provide the view from 30,000 feet: painting in broad strokes about American greatness, and writing in a reassuring tone about the challenges ahead. Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel is different. In his new book, "America: Our Next Chapter," Hagel not only takes a level view of the nation's toughest domestic and foreign policy problems, he suggests it may be time to scrap the two-party system altogether. Hagel doesn't just talk a post-partisan game, either: he's yet to endorse his party's candidate for president, John McCain, with whom he has disagreed over Iraq since 2005 (when Hagel compared it to Vietnam), and, more recently, over the issue of increasing troop levels. While preparing his questions for this week's congressional testimony on Iraq by General David Petraeus, the commander of that eventual surge in troop numbers, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, America's point man for political progress in Iraq, Sen. Hagel spoke to Newsweek's Seth Colter Walls about the war, the purpose of hope in politics, and the unforgiving straitjacket of partisanship. Excerpts:

Newsweek: How big of an issue do you think Iraq will be this fall, particularly for Sen. McCain?
Sen. Hagel:
First of all, Iraq is one of the most urgent and pressing issues facing our country. It's going to have to be dealt with, and the American people have turned a corner in measuring this, in any poll you can cite. They are opposed to our continuing in Iraq. They now believe it was a mistake to go into Iraq. Meanwhile, the generals have told us we are not going to be able to sustain our redeployment rates. Still, there's $12 to $13 billion a month going into Iraq. Whether John McCain is president or someone else, it's going to be a very big issue--in the election and after.

You haven't endorsed McCain, and suggested you may not endorse anyone. You've also criticized various proposals for withdrawing from Iraq on the Democratic side. Is sitting out the endorsement game a reflection of your dissatisfaction with the way Iraq is being handled overall?
Look, each of the two eventual candidates is going to have to develop his or her policy to present to the American people on how they intend to get out. 'I'm going to get us out of Iraq.' That's not a plan. That's not a policy. That's not a program. In the primary, that's where [Barack] Obama and [Hillary] Clinton have come down. They'll have to frame that up and they're going to have to develop that and explain it to the American people and our allies around the world. [McCain] is going to have to do the same thing. 'We're gonna stay and we're gonna win, as long as it takes,' is not a plan. Is he prepared to keep 150,000 troops there indefinitely?

It will be fleshed out. You will see that become quite clear as we get down into the last stages of the general election. I know it seems like we've been at this forever, but we're still months and months away from the first presidential debate. There will be time for candidates to develop their policies. Elections are all about self-correction. The broad themes McCain, Obama and Clinton are running out are fine, but that's just the beginning. Campaigns put flesh on the bones. Even though we've got these tremendous challenges, within all that universal challenge is opportunity.

So who reflects that opportunity best, out of the three remaining candidates?
I'm a long way from endorsing anyone. What I want to see is a president who can bring this country together. This country is so divided. According to a recent poll, 81 percent think we're going in the wrong direction. If we have a president who doesn't [create] consensus, we will not only have squandered an opportunity, we will put this country in a hole we may not be able to get out of. The three candidates all have some understanding of that, I think.

This next president is going to have to reach out to other party. A strong, bipartisan candidate--that's what I'm going to be looking for. I don't care, really, quite honestly, what party he or she comes from. I'm a Republican. That's fine. But this is not about Republican or Democrat. The polls are very clear on this.

Those almost sound like Obama talking points. Could you see yourself working in an Obama cabinet--or in any other candidate's future cabinet?
I'm not looking for a new job. I don't expect to be in any government. I haven't thought about it, and won't think about it. This is all far bigger than me, anyway. My endorsement is totally irrelevant. The problems we face are so much bigger than any one of us.

Yet, in your book, you still describe yourself as an optimist. Sounds like maybe you're a hope kind of guy? Or that at least you're not dismissive, as the Clintonites have been, of hope as 'just words'?
[Laughs] Well, first of all, I think, every individual in life has to have hope about the world being better. I don't think you can live a life without hope. Hope is more than just a word; it's part of who we are. Hope alone, sure, may be just a word. That's what I was referring to before. How do you connect hope and possibilities and the future to the realities that will get you there? You can't hope your way to a better world. But you've got to start with something almost spiritual. Now, spiritualism is more than church. But you cannot, in my view, have a vision for a society like ours, which is founded on the idea of a supreme being, without some kind of hope.

You're retiring at the end of this term, and you say you're not looking for another job. What will frustrate you most, in terms of work left undone, when you exit the public sphere?
Well, it's always difficult to go against the popular tide of the moment on any issue....We're so consumed by and controlled by parties--this narrow channel that we're in. If you dare question your party, your president or anyone on your team, then you're 'disloyal.' Then Rush [Limbaugh] takes you out. Then you get emails from your state: 'How dare you not support the troops?' And we're off to the races, losing the point, all mindlessly staying in the same channel. There's a larger universe than that, which requires challenging and probing. You've gotta fight that fight every day.

In the book, you also raise the possibility of America embracing a third, or independent, party. But despite independent sentiment in the polls, there's been no discernible electoral viability for a third way. Do you really see the two parties getting weaker?
Yes, you're seeing the disintegration of political parties. The Internet is the most powerful and dynamic change in politics since television. The Internet is even more powerful, given its ability to organize, inform, educate, market, and raise money. This is a tremendous tool for bypassing the parties. Now, I wouldn't say parties are irrelevant. Our current campaign finance structure, with 527 loopholes, has allowed groups [connected to parties] to put millions of dollars into ads. But this is all changing.

You write about the need to address money in politics. You don't think the current campaign finance rules are sufficient. Could you ever see yourself supporting public financing of federal campaigns?
I don't think public financing is the way. But the bottom line is, we've got to get transparency and accountability, so the American people know who's giving money to who. If everyone knew about earmarks, and who's requesting them--if this were all out in front, instead of under the cloak of darkness, it would be better. I think we ought to have full disclosure in campaign finance. Every nickel, including the 527s. I find it offensive beyond anything to have so much cowardice in the system. If you are so cowardly not to have the courage to use your name, or to step up front when you want to question John Kerry's patriotism, I think you're despicable. If you wanna put millions of dollars into the race, you ought to put your name up front. We don't have that today.