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Hagel: ‘We Should Engage & Negotiate With Iran’

In an interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who’s being mentioned as a potential Cabinet member in an Obama administration and, sometimes, even a potential VP, aligns himself neatly with the likely Democratic presidential nominee in the debate with Sen. John McCain over whether Washington should talk with Iran.

SPIEGEL: The question is: Should the U.S. go or should it stay (in Iraq)?

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Hagel: We need to get out, but responsibly. Much depends on how we are going to engage Iran. That spills over into the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. It spills over into Lebanon. It spills over into the relationship with Syria. We need a regional strategy, and in my view that means a permanent Middle East conference in which all Middle East nations participate. The longer we stay in Iraq, the more difficult it becomes to implement such a process. Many of the Arab nations don’t trust us.

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SPIEGEL: You would bring back diplomacy? That was certainly not one of the strengths of President George W. Bush.

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Hagel: That was a fundamental error. In the end it will be a diplomatic solution that will bring the Iraq war to an end. General David Petraeus has also said that.

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SPIEGEL: John McCain clearly places much more emphasis on the military than you do. Are there any further differences?

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Hagel: We must engage Iran and reach a point where we can begin to negotiate. I do not see an alternative. What has American involvement accomplished so far? The Middle East is as combustible and as complicated as it has ever been. Our policy has been disastrous. We now must apply all the instruments of power — diplomatic power is part of that, as is trade and economic development. Certainly the military is a part of that and so is intelligence sharing. We have to build relationships and define common interests. Only then is stability and security possible.

SPIEGEL: You are, then, an advocate of America relying more on soft power than on the military?

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Hagel: That’s the way we will make progress. We have to use our economic and also our cultural strength. Trust is the crucial currency in international relations. We willfully diminished the value of this currency and we now have to rebuild it. Trust is more important than anything else. North Korea was a part of the Axis of Evil, but now the United States is using the instruments of diplomacy in the Six Party talks.

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SPIEGEL: But that would mean that you are closer to Democrat Barack Obama than to your own party as far as foreign policy is concerned?

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Hagel: Well, that’s right, but I don’t develop my position on foreign policy based on which politicians I support or do not support. I was espousing this position on Iraq and Iran before Obama even got to the Senate.

Contrast this with statements made by McCain Monday at the AIPAC conference in Washington.

(W)e hear talk of a meeting with the Iranian leadership offered up as if it were some sudden inspiration, a bold new idea that somehow nobody has ever thought of before. Yet it’s hard to see what such a summit with President Ahmadinejad would actually gain, except an earful of anti-Semitic rants, and a worldwide audience for a man who denies one Holocaust and talks before frenzied crowds about starting another. Such a spectacle would harm Iranian moderates and dissidents, as the radicals and hardliners strengthen their position and suddenly acquire the appearance of respectability.

McCain went on to endorse political and economic sanctions against Tehran. Also in the Spiegel interview, Hagel reiterated his contention that the war in Iraq has weakened America’s standing in the international community.

We invaded Iraq, we are occupying Iraq and we have made Iraq dependent on us. By our actions we have done terrible damage to our own country and undermined our interests in the world.

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