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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Haggling Over Hagel’s Record

An ad from a pro-Israel group oversimplifies Chuck Hagel’s foreign policy positions in an attempt to portray Obama’s choice for secretary of defense as soft on Iran.

  • The ad claims Hagel voted against sanctions on Iran. It’s true that Hagel opposed unilateral U.S. sanctions, but he has voiced support for multilateral sanctions, such as those imposed by the United Nations.
  • The claim that “Hagel voted against labeling Iran’s revolutionary guard a terrorist group,” is also accurate, but incomplete. Hagel has repeatedly called Iran a state sponsor of terror, but he opposed a Senate resolution to designate the revolutionary guard as such because he feared it was a precursor to a military attack — which he opposed.
  • The ad uses an outdated quote from Hagel calling military action against Iran “not a viable, feasible, responsible option,” to suggest his position is at odds with Obama’s. The quote in the ad is from 2006. Since then, Hagel has said the U.S. should keep “military options” available.

On Jan. 7, Obama formally tapped Hagel to run the Pentagon. The move quickly set off a wave of opposition from some pro-Israel groups that view Hagel as soft of Iran. The group Emergency Committee for Israel created a website, chuckhagel.com, that seeks to make the case that Hagel is “not a responsible option.” The group also aired a cable TV ad in the Washington, D.C., area opposing Hagel’s nomination.

Hagel, a decorated Vietnam veteran and former Republican senator from Nebraska, has long pushed for diplomacy over military threats when it comes to Iran. But the ad from the Emergency Committee for Israel broad-brushes Hagel’s nuanced views to present an overly simplistic and incomplete portrait of his position.

On Sanctions Against Iran

For example, the ad says simply that Hagel “voted against” sanctions on Iran. That’s true, but that doesn’t mean that he opposes all Iran sanctions.

Hagel, a senator from 1997 to 2009, has voted against unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran, describing them as ineffective and counterproductive. But he has repeatedly voiced support for multilateral sanctions, such as U.N. sanctions. He also offered an amendment in 2001 that would have extended U.S. sanctions against Iran for two years rather than five — a position taken by the Bush administration.

Emergency Committee for Israel TV ad, “Not An Option”: President Obama says he supports sanctions on Iran. Hagel voted against them.

He was one of only two senators who voted against the “ILSA Extension Act of 2001,” which passed 96-2 on July 25, 2001. The bill extended for five years the “Iran and Libya Sanctions Act of 1996,” which imposes sanctions on companies that make certain investments in both countries. But Hagel’s position is more nuanced than his critics are willing to admit.

In committee, Hagel said he agreed “with the objectives of Iran and Libya Sanctions Act,” but took the position that unilateral action proved to be ineffective.

Hagel, June 28, 2001: I fully agree with the objectives of the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA). Combating proliferation and terrorism must remain at the forefront of our foreign policy. I do not agree, however, with a “face value” policy that seeks to combat these twin scourges unilaterally. ILSA cannot work. It has not worked. Right objectives but wrong policy.

Even so, Hagel offered an amendment in committee to the “ILSA Extension Act of 2001” that would have extended the law for two years, rather than five — as requested by the Bush administration. Republican Sen. Mike Enzi of Wyoming explained on the Senate floor why he supported Hagel’s amendment, which ultimately failed.

Enzi, July 25, 2001: At the Banking Committee markup, I supported Senator Hagel’s amendment, which would have reauthorized ILSA for two years, and more importantly, required the President to report to the Congress on the effectiveness of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act. The administration also requested a 2-year reauthorization so it could have a better opportunity to review its effectiveness. It is reasonable and prudent policy to review sanctions laws on a periodic basis.

In July 2008, Hagel again found himself in the minority and, this time, at odds with Obama. Hagel was one of only two senators on the Senate Committee on Banking who voted against the “Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2008,” which passed 19-2. (Enzi was the other “no” vote.)

The bill, which did not come up for a vote in the full Senate until after Hagel had left the Senate, would have expanded the sanctions to include, among others, financial institutions and foreign countries that do business with Iran. It also would have encouraged state and local government pension plans to divest from Iran’s energy sector. News accounts at the time said Hagel opposed it because it could undermine multilateral talks on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Dalije.com, a Croatian national newspaper, July 17, 2008: Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican who voted against the bill, said it “does not sanction Iran. It directly sanctions (U.S.) allies, friends and others.”

Hagel also noted some progress was being seen on Iran, such as nuclear talks this weekend in Geneva between Iran, Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China. A U.S. envoy will attend, a major shift in U.S. policy.

Obama did not sit on the Banking Committee and, therefore, didn’t vote on it. But he issued a statement on the day of the committee vote, praising the bill and urging the full Senate to pass it. He also spoke in support of the bill while campaigning for president in 2008.

While it is clear that Hagel did vote against unilateral sanctions against Iran, he also repeatedly voiced support for multilateral sanctions.

As he did in 2001, Hagel expressed support for working with other nations to bring financial pressure on Iran — this time in a 2007 letter to President George W. Bush. The letter urged Bush to engage Iran in direct talks. Hagel also expressed support for working “with our allies on financial pressure” on Iran through the United Nations Security Council.

Hagel, Oct. 17, 2007: Now is the time for the United States to active[ly] consider when and how to offer direct, unconditional, and comprehensive talks with Iran. The offer should be made even as we continue to work with our allies on financial pressure, in the UN Security Council on a third sanctions resolution, and in the region to support those Middle East countries who share our concerns with Iran. … An approach such as this would strengthen our ability across the board to deal with Iran. Our friends and allies would be more confident to stand with us if we seek to increase pressure, including tougher sanctions on Iran.

A few weeks later, Hagel gave a speech on Iran at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that was critical of the Bush administration’s unilateral actions against Iran.

In his speech, he criticized Iran as “a state sponsor of terrorism” whose president “publicly threatens Israel’s existence.” He also criticized Bush for seeking unilateral sanctions, saying the U.S. instead should engage in direct talks with Iran and work with “our allies on multilateral sanctions applying financial pressure.”

Hagel, Nov. 8, 2007: The offer [of direct talks] should be made even as we continue other elements of our strategy … working with our allies on multilateral sanctions applying financial pressure … working in the UN Security Council on a third sanctions resolution … and working in the region to support those Middle East countries who share our concerns with Iran.

Again, Hagel didn’t oppose all sanctions.

Labeling the Revolutionary Guard as Terrorists

The ad also says, “Hagel voted against labeling Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group.” That’s true, but Hagel’s position was, again, more nuanced than the ad suggests.

In September 2007, Hagel voted against the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which, among other things, called for expressing a “sense of the Senate” that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s elite military branch, be designated as a terrorist organization. Hagel saw the resolution — as well as the Bush administration’s announcement the month prior that it planned to designate the IRGC as a “specially designated global terrorist” — as feeding the drumbeat of war. The resolution passed the Senate 76-22.

In an interview on Nov. 9, 2007, Hagel told the Lincoln Journal Star that he feared the Bush administration might use the Senate resolution on Iran as cover for a military attack.

“I voted against that resolution for that very reason,” Hagel said. “It’s a very dangerous resolution.”

Obama joined Hagel in opposing the resolution. Obama, then on the presidential campaign trail, did not vote on it, but he did publicly come out against it. (Then-Sen. Joe Biden also voted against the resolution.)

Obama press release, Sept. 26, 2007: Senator Obama clearly recognizes the serious threat posed by Iran. However, he does not agree with the president that the best way to counter that threat is to keep large numbers of troops in Iraq, and he does not think that now is the time for saber-rattling towards Iran. In fact, he thinks that our large troop presence in Iraq has served to strengthen Iran – not weaken it. He believes that diplomacy and economic pressure, such as the divestment bill that he has proposed, is the right way to pressure the Iranian regime. Accordingly, he would have opposed the Kyl-Lieberman amendment had he been able to vote today.

But that wasn’t Obama’s only word on this issue. Before the Kyl-Lieberman amendment was introduced, Obama cosponsored a bill that called for the IRGC to be designated as “a Foreign Terrorist Operation.” Obama was one of the cosponsors of the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act, which states (in part):

Iran Counter-Proliferation Act: The Secretary of State should designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guards as a Foreign Terrorist Organization … and the Secretary of the Treasury should place the Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists under Executive Order 13224.

In addition to Obama, then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was among the 72 cosponsors of the bill. Hagel was not among the cosponsors. Neither were then-Majority Leader Harry Reid and then-Foreign Relations Chairman Joe Biden.

The bill never got to a vote. An Oct. 3, 2008, story in The Huffington Post cited an unnamed congressional aide speaking on background as saying that Hagel was “solely responsible for the hold on the bill.” We could find no public record to substantiate that.

In his first interview after being designated as Obama’s choice to be secretary of defense,  and in a fact sheet provided by Hagel’s office in early December, Hagel maintained that his position was not that he doubted Iran was a state sponsor of terror, but rather that he saw the Senate resolution as a “backdoor method of gaining congressional validation for military action.” Here’s what he told the Journal Star on Jan. 7:

Hagel, Jan. 7: I have said many times that Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism. I have also questioned some very cavalier attitudes taken about very complicated issues in the Middle East.

Israel is in a very, very difficult position. No border that touches Israel is always secure. We need to work to help protect Israel, so it doesn’t get isolated.

Furthering the peace process in the Middle East is in Israel’s interest.

The record backs up Hagel’s assertion that he has long identified Iran as a state sponsor of terror. Here’s what Hagel said in his 2007 address at the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

Hagel, Nov. 8, 2007: Our differences with Iran are real. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and continues to provide material support to Hezbollah and Hamas. The President of Iran publicly threatens Israel’s existence and is attempting to develop the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Iran has not helped stabilize the current chaos in Iraq and is responsible for weapons and explosives being used against U.S. military forces in Iraq.

Hagel expressed similar sentiments in his 2008 book, “America: Our Next Chapter.”

Hagel, “America: Our Next Chapter,” 2008: One of the world’s oldest civilizations, Iran is a proud nation with a long, rich history. It is also, at the same time, a nation that is a state sponsor of terrorism … the United States will need to engage Iran across a full range of issues including Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s support for terrorism, Israel, Iraq, U.S. sanctions, and security assurances. Acknowledging this necessity should in no way confuse our position vis-à-vis Iran’s dangerous, destabilizing, and threatening behavior. Iran provides material support for Hezbollah and Hamas, among others. It publicly threatens Israel, and is developing an increasingly advanced nuclear capability.

As these quotes make clear, Hagel had no problem calling Iran a state sponsor of terror. But he did resist efforts to have the Senate designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group, because he said he believed it would unnecessarily play into the drumbeat for war.

Military Option for Iran

Lastly, the ad claims, “While President Obama says all options are on the table for preventing a nuclear Iran, Hagel says, ‘Military action is not a viable, feasible, responsible action.’ ”

The ad cites a Dec. 12, 2012, story in the Washington Post for Hagel’s comment, but the Post was reporting a comment Hagel made to the Pakistani Press International on April 13, 2006:

Hagel, April 13, 2006: I do not expect any kind of military solution on the Iran issue. … I think to further comment on it would be complete speculation, but I would say that a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.

Since then, Hagel has made several comments in which he did not rule out the possibility of military action in Iran.

For example, in his 2007 address to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Hagel argued for diplomatic efforts and said that with the U.S. already “bogged down” and “overburdened” with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, “the answer to dealing with Iran will not be found in a military operation.” However, he did state that with regard to Iran: “The United States must employ a comprehensive strategy that uses all of its tools of influence within its foreign policy arsenal — political, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and military. … Our strategy must be one focused on direct engagement and diplomacy … backed by the leverage of international pressure, military options, isolation and containment.”

More recently, an opinion piece Hagel penned with William J. Fallon, Lee Hamilton, Thomas Pickering and Anthony Zinni, for the Washington Post on Sept. 28, 2012, said: “Our position is fully consistent with the policy of presidents for more than a decade of keeping all options on the table, including the use of military force, thereby increasing pressure on Iran while working toward a political solution.”

For his part, Obama has made himself clear that a military option with Iran is on the table. Here’s what Obama said in a speech at the AIPAC Policy Conference.

Obama, March 4, 2012: I have said that when it comes to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, I will take no options off the table, and I mean what I say.  That includes all elements of American power: a political effort aimed at isolating Iran; a diplomatic effort to sustain our coalition and ensure that the Iranian program is monitored; an economic effort that imposes crippling sanctions; and, yes, a military effort to be prepared for any contingency.

— Robert Farley and Eugene Kiely