A period of global unrest from Europe to East Asia. As national security issues under the Trump Administration reach a boiling point, we sit down with a former Midwestern U.S. Senator turned Defense Secretary. It's Chuck Hagel on this edition of Iowa Press.

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For decades, Iowa Press has brought you politicians and newsmakers from across Iowa and beyond. Now celebrating more than 40 years of broadcast excellence on statewide Iowa Public Television, this is the Friday, September 29 edition of Iowa Press. Here is David Yepsen. 

Yepsen: When the Trump administration began making national security decisions in early 2017, much of what could account for a "Trump Doctrine" was unknown. Nine months later the U.S. has run up against nervous European allies, continued wars in the Middle East and an increasing threat from the Korean Peninsula. One man with a career inside these national security decisions is Chuck Hagel. He is a Midwestern republican with two terms representing Nebraska in the U.S. Senate before serving as Defense Secretary in the Obama administration. Secretary Hagel was in Iowa Tuesday for a lecture at the John Culver Public Policy Center at Simpson College and he joined us here at the Iowa Press table. Mr. Secretary, welcome back to Iowa.

Hagel: Good to see you again. Always good to be in the Heartland with the prairie people who have an abundance of common sense.

Yepsen: Thanks for giving us some of your time. Across the table, James Lynch is Political Writer for the Gazette and Kay Henderson is News Director at Radio Iowa. I'd like to open, Mr. Secretary, with a simple question. Are we headed back to a hot war in North Korea?

Hagel: I hope not. I don't think that has to be the alternative or is the alternative to resolving the North Korean nuclear issue. The reality is, at least in my opinion in being somewhat informed about this, there really is no military solution here. The consequences of a military attack on the north, ultimately yes you would devastate the North Koreans and their capability, but at what cost? And I've been on that DMZ many times. I know a lot about it. The North Koreans have thousands of artillery pieces lined up on that border, Seoul is 50 miles from the DMZ, we have tens of thousands of troops still there, in fact, not just on the DMZ, everywhere. This would be at a tremendous cost. I think the wiser course of action is to continue along the diplomatic front. I think in many respects the Iranian nuclear agreement, which I helped put together, probably is the eventual course that we're going to have to follow here because some kind of diplomatic settlement in engagement with the north I think is going to be required. That will have to include South Korea, of course, certainly China, maybe Japan. But until that begins to start to develop, and somewhat go back to what President Clinton did in the early '90s, then I think this problem escalates and gets more and more dangerous because bottom line is some kind of an event could trigger a major conflict and that is what we want to provide, I mean prevent, at all costs.

Henderson: What do you make of President Trump's use of Twitter as a diplomatic channel and his reference to the leader of North Korea as Rocket Man?

Hagel: Well, I think it's wrong. I think it's irresponsible. I think it's immature. And I think quite frankly it's a sign of a certain amount of insecurity. When people start calling each other names I think it reflects more on them than on the object of the scorn. And for the President of the United States the world expects, and the American people I hope, believe that President should be held to a higher standard in conduct of wise, mature, clear thinking about leadership and how to handle these very difficult international issues. And by name calling and the continued baiting of the North Korean leader is a dangerous and irresponsible way to do it.

Henderson: You mentioned the Iran nuclear deal. Republicans in the U.S. Senate and President Trump have labeled it a non-starter, they would like to dismantle it. How in the world would an administration that does not like the Iranian nuclear deal strike a nuclear deal on the Korean Peninsula?

Hagel: Well, here's the reason I say that. Every situation is different of course. But when you really define it down as to what that Iranian nuclear agreement was about, it wasn't about the capabilities of the Iranians on their missile capacity or their rocket capacity or the fact that they are a state sponsor of terrorism. Yes, all those are accurate. But the focus was on their nuclear capability. We have never had an opportunity to be inside Iran until now, it was always the IEA, the United Nations. So we got a tremendous amount out of that with five other countries, including three of our closest allies, France, Britain and Germany, and the Chinese and the Russians. So, focusing on the nuclear capability, and then you have to get to the other issues as well. That seems to me to be somewhat of a model to use to get to the Kim Jong-un administration's nuclear capability and I don't know how that would work out or if we could get there. But certainly there is a model there to be used. But that would require a strategic, diplomatic objective and plan and focus. Maybe something like that is going on now. Just as a quick reminder, you remember that President Clinton had secretly sent President Carter to put that together as far as the structure and the system before the Clinton administration sat down with the North Koreans. Maybe something like that is going on now, I doubt it, at least hearing what President Trump has to say about it. But I think those are the wiser courses of action.

Lynch: It seems that you're saying that we can coexist with a nuclear North Korea. Do we reach a point with Iran, Pakistan, Russian, China of too many unfriendly nations with nuclear power? Is there a tipping point?

Hagel: Well I think that question is an appropriate one but there's another then follow up set of questions you ask to that question. And that is okay, if the answer is no, we're not going to live with that, then how are you going to change that? We have a lot of smart people who write editorials and professors who like to talk about it, but I've not seen a plan yet. The only plan I've seen is well let's militarily destroy them. Well, I've already covered that. That certainly is an alternative, but at the cost of millions and millions of people, Seoul is gone and their entire industrial base, South Korea is gone because it resides right in that area. We would lose tens of thousands of men and women. Now, if you're willing to pay that cost to fulfill that objective then that's a decision our leaders will have to make. But what I'm saying is that we do have a world, unfortunately, of too many nuclear powers and we have found a way to coexist. Since World War II there has not been a nuclear exchange. I don't think all the great leaders after World War II went to their graves ever believing that there wouldn't have been a nuclear exchanged in some way by now. We have been able to do that. The reality is that most likely North Korea has nuclear capability. Now, how do you get to that? How do you fix that? What do you do about that? Iran is the same thing. The last point I'd make, all these big issues, especially as they are presented to the President of the United States, are always very difficult. There are never any good options. President Truman found it out, all we need to do is, as you are doing, watch Ken Burns' documentary. Five American Presidents were involved in the buildup, involvement in Vietnam. Well, if you go back and make decisions based on what they knew at the time, not 2017, I don't think you can second guess a leader based on those decisions that they made then whether it's right or wrong. But it's the same kind of thing. That's the reality we have today. And the last point I'd make, this bravado of military attacks and military action, these are almost always from people who know nothing about war, starting with the President of the United States. That's the way it is.

Henderson: Speaking of war and your Vietnam experience, how has the Vietnam experience impacted U.S. foreign policy and specifically in Afghanistan, which some people have referred to as another Vietnam?

Hagel: Well, as I watched the Ken Burns documentary, and I've seen most of it before it went on, and it's a magnificent piece for all the reasons you all know. But one of the reasons it's so good, it's so important, it is reflective of the realities of history and the consequences of war and especially the unintended consequences of war.  You can go to Iraq, Afghanistan, and I was in the Senate during the whole time, and all the promises that we were told, even in those two countries, 16 years later we're still in Afghanistan, we're still in Iraq, and actually the Middle East is worse off today than it has ever been. So these are unintended consequences of thinking well we'll do this and this is the way it will be and we'll be out in six months or twelve months and all these things were promised, greeted as liberators, but we're seen as occupiers. Your question is a very good one I think because when you watch that Ken Burns documentary it does reflect a lot, an awful lot parallel to what has been going on in Afghanistan and the nation building and the institution building. It is always up to the people, it will always be up to the people. The United States cannot solve everyone's problems and especially those problems that are historic, they are religious, they are ethnic, they are tribal. And so they have to be sorted out there. I think we're making some fundamental mistakes again in Afghanistan, not too different from what we saw in Vietnam.

Yepsen: To that point then, what should we do? You were talking about getting out of Afghanistan years ago. Now we have a new President, if I'm allowed an opinion you sound an awful lot like, he sounded an awful lot like Robert McNamara in talking about the light at the end of the -- so what do we do now?

Hagel: Well, again, it goes back to my point regarding the question on North Korea. These are very difficult problems because every way you go here is not a good answer. So let's start with the alternatives. One alternative, which I think the Trump administration is following, let's just keep putting more and more troops in and more and more money in and let's just hope something happens. But the facts are, after 16 years, not because I said, but it's independent analysis of everybody out there, the Afghan government is more corrupt today than it has ever been, there are more defections from the Afghan army, record numbers, record poppy production, Taliban controls more of the countryside now, roughly half or more, than they ever have. After 16 years I'm not sure that's a good indication of how effective we have been because we have built, put hundreds of billions of dollars in institution building in Afghanistan. Institution building is critically important because those are the institutions that help govern a country. By the way, historically a country that has never been governed by a central government ever. So, to answer your question, what do we do? I think that what you don't do is you continue to put more troops in and you develop more of an anti-American sentiment, which is going on there now as occupiers and killing more people and more innocent people and you're going to do that. I think the smarter way to do it is to focus, again, on some diplomatic, strategic objective to get the Taliban and the government and you're probably using Pakistan and others to come to a table. But that is difficult as well.

Lynch: So would you declare victory and go home? Or does Afghanistan become the next South Korea where we have a continued military presence for as long as we can see?

Hagel: I hope it is not the latter, I don't think it will be the latter because I don't think the American people will put up with it and I don't think the next generation of American leaders will put up with it. I can't predict that but I certainly don't think that is going to be the outcome. Different time, different situation, different dynamic. I think there is not going to be any alternative but for us to eventually have to leave Afghanistan in some way at some time. I don't see any other way to do that. So, a President is in a very difficult spot. The Lyndon Johnson tapes came out clearly, I don't want to be the first president to lose a war. And as soon as a president or decision makers decide, well we've had enough, or we're going to eventually wind down, then boom, you lost the war. Gerry Ford was lucky in a way because he didn't make that decision, the Congress made it for him in 1975 when they said, we're out, that's it. And so it has never been linked to Gerry Ford losing Vietnam.

Henderson: This week President Trump issued a new, revised travel ban. You weighed in on the previous travel ban. What is your analysis of the current policy?

Hagel: Well I think it's wrong. And first of all, I'm not sure by any measurement that there is a problem to address. We don't have any past records or incidents of terrorists coming in through our immigration system and destroying America or killing Americans. These individual situations in America are not traced to any of that. So I'm not sure what the problem is. Second, this is a country that has always welcomed people. Now, should laws be enforced? Yes. But the DACA children, which has gotten a lot of attention, which I was the first republican cosponsor of that with Dick Durbin, by the way, of the Dream Act when I was in the Senate. That's a smarter way to do this for the country. We have a tremendous volume of laws now and enforcement of those laws on the books and we've been lucky, but also it is because of our people and the enforcement of laws we have, we really haven't had any major attacks in this country since 9/11. We've had the incidents that have been terrible and so on. But it doesn't mean we won't have them because we are the most open, mobile, transparent society in the world today, 325 million Americans. I don't think we want to be giving up our rights and pulling our horns in and pushing people out just for security. We don't have to do that. We can still secure this country and still be who we are. So I disagree with the policy. I think it's wrong-headed. I think it's dangerous. I think it is going to have a major effect.

Yepsen: Secretary, we've got too many questions and not enough time. James?

Lynch: I want to ask you about, you mentioned being welcoming. The President wants to ban transgender people from serving in the military and he's getting a lot of pushback from the military. Is this an issue or should it be an issue for the President to decide?

Hagel: Well, I think the President should have a role in it. He's Commander in Chief, he's the one elected official that all Americans decide on. That said, I'm opposed to his position on that because I've always believed if a person is qualified and prepared and willing to serve this country I think that should be the determining factor. The other part of this is the transgender issue is a very small percentage of the issues that the United States military has to deal with. And I was there during a lot of that period and got involved in the studies and so on and so on. But our military leaders have been pretty clear on this and I think we should take clear guidance from our military leaders who spend their lives dealing with men and women in serving their countries and the sacrifices they make on this, not that they shouldn't have the final say, but I think we need to pay attention to them.

Henderson: Iowa's Governor this week said she was disappointed in the take a knee protest movement that has come onto the NFL field. What are your thoughts? Do you agree with our Governor that she was taught that you should stand in respect to the flag during the national anthem?

Hagel: Well I was taught that as well growing up in little towns in Nebraska and I believe that personally. That is my choice and I believe that and I still hold to that. Now, that said, we do have a country that gives people rights to express themselves as long as it's within the law and they're not killing somebody or hurting somebody. It's not the way I would do it. But, again, when you look at all the problems in the country today and in the world and you're going to pick on this? I mean, somehow our priorities with our leaders, starting with the President, are really out of whack here. And so I don't think that's right. I'll give you a very quick response to that too. You may have seen a Marine who served his whole life I think, 25 years in the Marines, responded to that. Do you know what he said? He said, I don't agree with it but, he said, I spent 25 years of my life protecting the rights of that individual to do that. And think about this, when Kaepernick started this and up until the President made it a big deal, teeny, teeny amount of people doing this. So what.

Yepsen: Mr. Secretary, I want to switch gears to closer to the Midwest and an issue important here, trade. We always think of the Midwest as the bread basket, we rely on trade out of these states and yet in the Republican Party today, and even among a lot of democrats, there is real antipathy toward things like the Transpacific Partnership and foreign trade agreements, about renegotiating NAFTA. And that stress is really obvious to me in the Republican Party. What should the republican position be on these issues of trade versus I call it isolationism?

Hagel: Well I think it should be the same as the Republican Party has always been since World War II, pro-engagement and very pro-trade.

Yepsen: Are you losing that battle inside the party?

Hagel: We are losing it I think starting with the President's decisions I think completely irresponsible, unfounded positions on NAFTA, TPP. If there is one country that has benefited more than any other country in the world on trade it has been the United States. Agriculture, are you kidding me? I was asked a question years ago, why do the good people of Nebraska allow you to be on the foreign relations committee and travel all over the world and meet all these leaders and so on? And I said, you don't understand the people of the Midwest. People of the Midwest, agriculture, understood the relevance and the importance for them specifically of foreign relations before anybody did because that opened new markets for their pork and their sorghum and their corn and their soybeans and this NAFTA conversation is astounding to me why the Midwestern states, whether they're republican or democrats, don't say to President Trump, no, no, our farmers, our ranchers, our little towns in these states rely on this. This has been tremendously important for us. Plus it's good will, it builds stability and security around the world.

Yepsen: James?

Lynch: I want to follow up on that. Are you still a republican? And are you comfortable with the Republican Party and the direction it is moving or seems to be moving in the 2016 election?

Hagel: I'm still a republican, I've never changed my registration. No, I'm not comfortable with where I see the Republican Party going. It is moving in I think a very dangerous kind of an isolationist America first, America first kind of position. America is always going to be first with any citizen or a leader. That's not new. The sovereignty of a nation, every leader has it and should have it. But what is really missing here is the great expansion and understanding of what Eisenhower and Reagan and the Bush's and our republican presidential leaders, that it's good for America when the world prospers and does well and we engage and we are leading. We're not dictating, we're not imposing, we're not occupying, but we're leading. And we need friends. We need friends in the world. We have to have friends and that's the bottom line.

Henderson: If you were still in the United States Senate how would you make it function?

Hagel: Make what?

Henderson: It function.

Hagel: The Republican Party?

Henderson: The U.S. Senate, how would you make it function?

Hagel: Well, I would be one Senator, but I think I'd do everything I could to go back to the time when I first got to the United States Senate in 1996 when you had republicans and senators, just as right and just as left as they are today, but they got along. They had mutual respect, they listened to each other, there was basic civility and you didn't personalize anything. And they would argue and raise hell but in the end they knew why they were there and that was to help govern our country and help improve our system. Ronald Reagan once said, if you can get 70%, 80% of anything, take it. Rarely did I ever vote on any major legislation, probably 6,000 votes in the Senate, where I agreed 100% on what I voted on. And so that is where you start. You've got to start with the people, I hold the individuals in the Senate accountable for this lack of civility and the breakdown. There's nothing wrong with the Senate, there's nothing wrong with the rules, it's people make it.

Yepsen: Mr. Secretary, we've got about a minute left. You're in Iowa. Are you thinking about running for President?

Hagel: No, no I did one time but I was on the other side of the Iraq issue with my republican president and my republican friends and there's little chance I would have been able to get a republican nomination.

Yepsen: And Bob Kerrey came back to Nebraska and ran for the Senate after he left. Are you thinking about -- would you think about running for the Senate again from Nebraska?

Hagel: No, my 12 years in the Senate, great, terrific, I will always be grateful for that opportunity. But I've always believed in circulation of new ideas, new energy, new leadership, new focus. I don't think everybody has to get out after 12 years or 18, that's up to them. But no, I'm very happy with what I'm doing now. I'm doing a lot now. But I'm doing the things I want to do and the people I want to do them with.

Henderson: Quickly, would you support someone else as a republican nominee for President in 2020? And would it be Ben Sasse?

Hagel: Well --

Yepsen: About 20 seconds.

Hagel: Yes, I would support somebody else other than President Trump. As to the individual, I don't know, we're over three years away. So there are going to be a lot of republicans emerge and others and who knows what the world looks like next week in the Republican Party. But there's a fundamentals change going on and we need to go through it and we'll be better when we get to the other end of it.

Yepsen: And I have to leave it there. We're at the end of our time. Thank you, Mr. Secretary, for being with us. It's good to see you again.

Hagel: My pleasure.

Yepsen: And thank you for joining us for our latest edition of Iowa Press. We'll be back next week. Our guest is Iowa's Third District Republican Congressman David Young. He joins us Friday night at 7:30 and Sunday at noon on our main IPTV channel with a rebroadcast on our .3 World channel Saturday morning at 8:30. For all of us here at Iowa Public Television, I'm David Yepsen. Thanks for joining us today.


Funding for Iowa Press was provided by Friends, the Iowa Public Television Foundation. The Associated General Contractors of Iowa, the public's partner in building Iowa's highway, bridge and municipal utility infrastructure. I'm a dad. I am a mom. I'm a kid. I'm a kid at heart. I'm a banker. I'm an Iowa banker. No matter who you are there is an Iowa banker who is ready to help you get where you want to go. Iowa Bankers, allowing you to discover the genuine difference of Iowa banks.   

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