As Larry Evans, professor of government, waited for Sen. Chuck Hagel (R.-Neb.) to address his legislative process class last Friday, he was told the senator would speak for no more than 15 minutes. Once in class, however, a relaxed Hagel “talked politics” for more than an hour.
The senator rehearsed some of the themes that would appear in his keynote Charter Day speech on the following day. We are “living in a time of transformation,” he said. Although terrorism and weapons of mass destruction continue to be threats to civilized nations, “global poverty, endemic health issues, climate change and despair” constitute more “insidious concerns,” he said. “From that despair usually comes instability. Although it is true that every terrorist is not produced by poverty, extremism preys on that despair.”
Hagel suggested that the United States could provide leadership in a world that was becoming more complex by remembering the lessons of the diplomacy practiced after World War II. “The United States succeeded because we were wise in our purpose, our purpose was trusted and we worked with our allies,” he said. Referring to current levels of distrust between the United States and other nations, he said, “We need to understand those things that America does best. The world wants our leadership, but it doesn’t want us to dictate or to impose our will.”
After his brief remarks, Hagel responded to more than a dozen questions from class members. The questions included why he became a politician, who his mentors were, what his views on alternative energy were and how he would define victory in the battle against terrorism.
“Politics is about one thing. It is about making a better world,” Hagel said in response to the first question. He became involved in the process, he said, after he realized that “it is always the leadership of individuals that makes the difference.”
Concerning alternative forms of energy, Hagel said he supported increased use of nuclear fuels as well as development of crop-based and wind-based power sources. “Energy security is extremely important,” he said, but he did not foresee the United States achieving energy independence in the near future. “Society cannot exist without lights on in the room,” he said. “Wind will not power our automobiles.”
“The point is that we have to widen our energy portfolio,” Hagel said. “In the end, technology is the only thing that is going to solve our dilemma.”
Hagel told students that there was no military solution to the battle against terrorism. “We need political accommodation,” he said. “We need first to understand the issues: Who are the terrorists? What is their objective?” He said that the more than a dozen sophisticated terrorist networks that have been identified are not driven by a single objective. Speaking to a false perception that there exists a religious basis for terrorism, Hagel said, “There is very little difference between a Palestinian Muslim family, an Israeli Jewish family and an American Christian family. We have more in common than we have in difference.”
“A world that is peaceful, secure, stable and tolerant—If I had that kind of world, I’d take it,” Hagel said. He cautioned, however, that he would “fight like hell” against attempts to take away civil liberties in the name of security. “History suggests that once you take them away, you don’t get them back,” he said.
The students did not seem overly surprised that Hagel showed up during their class. Said sophomore Antonio Elias, “Professor Evans understands the importance of, in a class about Congress, actually talking to congressmen.”
Junior Noel Miller, who had raised a question about diplomacy, said, “I appreciated his insight, because soft power is a difficult subject. He dealt mostly with economic and military stuff, but he said we need to lead with soft power, and I agree, so that was fantastic.”