Chuck Hagel in NJ: 0 delegates down, 78 to go

With delight, I attended yesterday afternoon a talk by Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel (R) at Rutgers University, co-sponsored by the university's Middle Eastern Studies department and American Iranian Council, entitled "21st Century Challenges". The lecture's primary focus was US policy on Iran, about which the Senator spoke at length and with refreshingly little cliché.

I will go point by point through some of the more important elements of his speech (note: quotes are not exact word-for-word), and give some comments on each, followed by an overall appraisal of the event in the backdrop of Hagel's position as a possible 2008 Presidential contender.

1) Iran is causing the deaths of American soldiers in Iraq...

Early in the speech, Hagel listed the issues driving America's poor relationship with Iran. No surprises, except perhaps his endorsement of the idea that Iran bears responsibility for the deaths of US soldiers through its financial and material support of insurgents. In a speech widely critical of the Bush Administration's Middle East policy, this element, seemingly lifted directly from the White House playbook, seemed a bit out of place.

Chris Floyd, a staunchly anti-Bush journalist often quoted by libertarians like Lew Rockwell, offers a critical view of this assertion. Libertarians in general consider the media's willingness to endorse such evidence as a signal that war with Iran cannot be avoided - they see strong echoes of the lead-up to the Iraq War. The fact that an articulate critic of the Iraq War like Chuck Hagel cites these factors will trouble them, and it indicates that the debate has already been framed with this component built into the thought process of most Americans as they ponder a course of action concerning Iran. (continued...)

2) Iran's cooperation with the US was self-serving...

One would not expect a Republican Senator mulling a run for the White House to acknowledge Iran's cooperation with the US (Taliban, etc.), although it does reflect reality, as I discussed on this blog in the context of the 2006 midterm elections. Hagel asserted that states acting in their own interests was a good thing, because it is predictable if not agreeable. He is right. Erratic behavior, Hagel said, was the true cause for concern.

3) Iran is not a monolith...

Bravo, Chuck! The Senator went on to explain the separation of powers in the Iranian government and noted its complexity, as well as the difficulty of understanding such an "opaque" political structure. Once again, I almost felt as if Chuck had read the analysis of the recent Iranian elections that I posted here in late December.

4) Iranians have a positive attitude toward the West...

This reminded me of a quote from the British Ambassador to Iran, Geoffrey Adams. I could not locate it online but may have read it in the onboard magazine of BMED airlines (my London-Dakar travels), a British Airways franchise partner which flies regularly from London to Tehran. (Think: should anyone be surprised that Tony Blair will not support military action against Iran when the UK's national carrier operates practically daily flights to Iran's capital?)

Anyway, the point is, when someone begins by saying, Iranians have a positive attitude toward the West..., as Hagel did, hold your breath. The next phrase might be, regime change will be a 'cakewalk'. (read that link and laugh like hell, because you'll cry if you don't!) OR, the next phrase might be, as it fortunately was in the case of Hagel's speech, ...but they will close ranks and support their government if their nation is threatened recklessly.

5) We must find new and imaginative ways to reach out...

Hagel specifically proposed the establishment of a consulate in Iran, not a full blown diplomatic presence in the form of an embassy, but rather a consular office that would facilitate people-to-people contact and "public diplomacy" (quick, somebody call Karen Hughes!!!) in the form of student exchange programs, etc.

During the question portion which followed the talk, I had planned to ask (but was not called upon): Would you support the establishment of a full-blown embassy, which, as CATO institute scholar and my fellow Chronicles contributor Ted Galen Carpenter has argued, would enable the US to spy on Iran more effectively and gather solid intelligence - because if we don't do so, decision makers in Washington will likely get their information on Iran from the brain farts in Richard Perle's next book.

6) The State Department has become adjunct to the Israeli Foreign Minister's office...

Wow. A very bold statement by Hagel bound to further raise the ire of the "Jewish Lobby" (yawn...), but it does express his strong belief in a comprehensive solution to problems in the Middle East. Hagel mentioned this theme several times - comprehensive, he said, in the sense that all tools should be used to achieve American foreign policy objectives (diplomatic, political, economic, and military), but also comprehensive in the James Baker sense of addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict holistically as both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have proved too lazy and too incompetent to do.

7) ...'take these things off table before we even talk to you', that is international blackmail...

Clearly a Hagel presidency would seek to undo the hubris of the Bush Administration. Hagel spoke enthusiastically about the talks on Iraqi stability that will be attended by all the stakeholders, including Iran, Syria, and the US sitting around the same table. I think he is misreading the dynamics at play there, but more on that in a later post...

On the whole, I very much enjoyed the event. It's no secret to readers of this blog and my other articles that my views coincide strongly with Senator Hagel's, so the talk was basically music to my ears.

There were, however, several causes for concern. First of all, the Senator, while demonstrating an excellent knowledge of specifics, tended to drag on when answering questions. Although, this can be attributed to the academic nature of the event and the audience. Secondly, it doesn't help the Senator's conservative credentials (miles ahead of Giuliani's or McCain's in reality) when Lyndon LaRouche supporters consider Hagel events as ideal recruitment ground (they were there passing out literature).

For me, the time for boyish excitement about how much I agree with Chuck Hagel has passed. That does nothing for the man. He is in a political vice right now. Despite his very mainstream favorable press coverage coming fast and furious and thus increasing his name recognition with likely voters in the General Election, he's first got to win a Republican Primary. In order to ascend sharply amongst likely primary voters he will have to wait for "stay the course" types like McCain/Giuliani and to a lesser extent Romney to melt each other down and the GOP base to look for new solutions - but for early primaries like we have here in NJ, this delay is a liability because collecting signatures for 3 convention delegates and 3 alternates in each of 13 congressional districts (6 * 13 = 78) is no easy task and will require a formidable organization.

Although the plus side is that non-affiliated voters in NJ (like some of the, shall we say, "eccentric" individuals who attended yesterday's talk) have the right to cast a vote in the primary (hence the "registered Republicans" here who are liberals that wanted to cast a vote for McCain in the 2000 Primary).

Giuliani has sucked so much oxygen out of the room in New Jersey, it's hard to describe. Plus, McCain and Romney have good fundraising teams of proven party insiders behind them up here. Hagel is behind the ball. Timing will be everything, especially as it pertains to Republican patience for the Iraq War.


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