Blitzer skips opportunity to press Hagel on his criticism of McCain's foreign policy

››› ››› BRIAN LEVY

In an interview on CNN's American Morning, Sen. Chuck Hagel said: "John [McCain] and I have some pretty fundamental differences on Iraq, on foreign policy." But in a later interview, Wolf Blitzer skipped the opportunity to press Hagel to elaborate on those "fundamental differences," or to give his assessment, in light of those differences, of the impact of a McCain presidency on the nation.

When asked about Sen. John McCain's March 26 foreign policy speech in an interview on the March 27 edition of CNN's American Morning, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) said: "John and I have some pretty fundamental differences on Iraq, on foreign policy." In an interview that aired more than eight hours later on The Situation Room -- an interview host Wolf Blitzer said he conducted "[j]ust a short while ago," which presumably allowed plenty of time for him to prepare questions based on the American Morning interview -- Blitzer did not ask Hagel to elaborate on the "pretty fundamental differences on Iraq, on foreign policy." Indeed, despite Hagel's criticism of his own party's presumptive presidential nominee on Blitzer's own network earlier that same day, Blitzer did not ask Hagel a single question specifically about whether he thought that, because of his "fundamental differences" with McCain on foreign policy, a McCain administration would be detrimental to the nation. Instead of asking Hagel for his assessment of the consequences of a McCain presidency for U.S. policy and interests abroad -- and instead of asking Hagel how, given their "fundamental differences" on foreign policy, he could consider supporting McCain -- Blitzer asked: "So, bottom line right now, at this point, you have an open mind, and you could endorse in the end any one of these three [presidential candidates]?"

A portion of Blitzer's interview with Hagel also aired in the 6 p.m. ET hour of the March 27 Situation Room.

From the March 27 edition of CNN's American Morning:

ROBERTS: Let me ask you a question about the campaign, first of all. You said that you were going to wait until the candidates spoke about Iraq before you made a decision on who you would support and whether or not you would support anyone. Senator John McCain had an extensive speech on foreign policy yesterday. Let's listen to what he said about Iraq.

McCAIN [video clip]: I believe a reckless and premature withdrawal would be a terrible defeat for our security interests and our values.

It would be an unconscionable act of betrayal, a stain on our character as a great nation.

ROBERTS: Have you heard enough that you can say whether or not you're going to support John McCain?

HAGEL: Well, first of all, John is a good friend, and there's no one in the Senate that I respect more than John McCain. I want to have a conversation with John. I'll have that conversation. I want to have it in a private way, and I want to walk through some of these things with him because I think the next four years, the next president, is going to have to do things dramatically different than what this administration has been doing, I think, to really undermine our interests in the world.

John and I have some pretty fundamental differences on Iraq, on foreign policy. Some of those he articulated yesterday. I have never believed that the context that Iraq should be looked at from is a win-or-lose proposition. It's not ours to win or lose. It's the Iraqi people who will make that decision. We can help them, but I think what's going on in Iraq today is further evidence now in our sixth year that this is, as General [David] Petraeus told our committee last year, this is a matter of not having and never will have a military solution.

ROBERTS: John McCain, in terms of foreign policy, was talking about fostering better ties with the allies, that America can no longer go out there in the world and do what it wants, where it wants, when it wants. Do you agree on that point?

HAGEL: Well, that's a point I've been making for years in speeches, as you know. I make that point in the book. It's a point I think this administration has somehow disconnected from, which is astounding to me. Bush's father didn't do it, Reagan didn't do it, Eisenhower didn't do it, Kennedy didn't do it. But you asked a question specifically about Iraq. But I was very pleased to see what John said yesterday about alliances, because these challenges that face the world today are global and it's going to require a strengthening of our alliances with our friends to deal with environmental issues, energy issue, certainly proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, extremism. We can't do that alone, and I think that's part of the reason we're in so much trouble in the Middle East today.

ROBERTS: But you're not ready yet to put your stamp of approval on John McCain's candidacy?

HAGEL: I'm not ready to endorse him for president yet.

ROBERTS: All right.

From the March 27 edition of CNN's The Situation Room:

BLITZER: Just a short while ago, I spoke with Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, an early Republican critic of the war. He's out with a brand new book on ways to try to improve the U.S. image around the world. It's called America: Our Next Chapter [Ecco, March 2008]. I asked Senator Hagel if President Bush is giving the public too rosy a picture of what's happening in Iraq right now.

[begin video clip]

BLITZER: Some of his critics, the president's critics, saying, you know, he's basically ignoring reality on the ground in Iraq right now, and some of his severe critics say he's living in a dream world. What do you say, as someone who has criticized him over these years?

HAGEL: Well, I think this is another episode of Alice in Wonderland. What's up is down, and what's down is up. What do you mean stability and security? Baghdad, for example, has been over the last year essentially ethnically divided. You've separated the Sunnis and the Shias, and to somehow make some assertion that things are looking much, much better in Baghdad and it's calm again and it's back to where it used to be is just -- is not -- not the case.

And when you look at the casualties the United States has taken since the so-called military surge, over 900 deaths, you look at almost 30,000 wounded, and the money we put in there, then the other point of this is, too, if, in fact, the surge has calmed things to a point where the president and others are saying, "Well, they've done a great service, and they've achieved some terrific things," why then is the administration talking about keeping more American troops in Iraq for the remainder of this year than we had before the surge? So no, this is still a very unstable, serious, dangerous situation in Iraq.

BLITZER: You've served with all three of these remaining presidential candidates, John McCain and Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton. They're all senators. You know them well. Who is most qualified among these three to be the next commander in chief?

HAGEL: First, I know all three, as you say. I've served with all three. I am not going to endorse a candidate for president today by saying who I believe is the most qualified to be commander in chief. That will play out, Wolf. The American people will make that decision.

I have not endorsed anyone for president. And I have not endorsed anyone partially because I want whoever those final two candidates are to explain to the American people how they are going to unwind American involvement in this fiasco in Iraq, and what their foreign policy is going to look like over the next four years. We've done terrible damage --


HAGEL: -- to our country around the world.

BLITZER: -- without endorsing any candidate, as far as the Iraq policies they've enunciated, whether it's McCain or Obama or Clinton, whose Iraq strategy, as you've heard it, do you like the most?

HAGEL: Well, obviously, what I've heard, like the American people have heard, is McCain on one side saying, "We'll stay there until there's victory, and whatever it takes, we're going to win." On the other side, both Obama and Clinton have both said, "We're coming out."

That's not good enough, because each of the two final candidates are going to have to enunciate, how are we coming out? How responsibly are we coming out? Under what basis? Under what timeline? I don't agree with John McCain. And you know this, Wolf. I think John and the president and others have put the Iraqi situation in the wrong context. This isn't a win or lose. The Iraqi people will decide whether they want the government they want in place and when.

We can help them, but we shouldn't be framing this up as win or lose, because when we do that -- and this is where I have a major disagreement with McCain -- then on that -- on that basis, we'll be there forever, because the Iraqis are going to have to find some political accommodation, some political reconciliation, to fix this.

Just as General Petraeus said -- Petraeus said a week ago that the biggest disappointment, the biggest failure there over the last year, after and during the surge, has been very little political progress, which in the end is all that's going to matter.

BLITZER: So bottom line right now, at this point, you have an open mind, and you could endorse in the end any one of these three?

HAGEL: Or I may not endorse anyone.

BLITZER: Is that -- is that possible, you think?

HAGEL: Sure, it is. I may not endorse any of the candidates. But I do think this is so serious for the future of our country and for the world that we get this right over the next four years, because of the terrible blunder that we made here over the last few years.

BLITZER: You've known Obama since he came into the Senate. He's on the Foreign Relations Committee. Have you seen any -- anything that points to him, any strength that he's shown in terms of his Senate record?

HAGEL: I've cooperated with Obama, and I have co-sponsored with Obama a number of pieces of legislation, one on being a new non-proliferation bill, which I'm very proud of. I think Obama is a very bright, agile, intuitive, not only politician but individual. John McCain is bright, experienced, smart. Hillary Clinton is certainly experienced and smart. I think any of those three is qualified to be president of the United States. What kind of a president they'd be, no one -- no one can tell.

BLITZER: All right. I want to just read one quote from the book, because it's a powerful quote, and get your explanation.

"So why did we invade Iraq? I believe it was the triumph of the so-called neoconservative ideology, as well as Bush administration arrogance and incompetence that took America into this war of choice. They obviously made a convincing case to a president with very limited national security and foreign policy experience, who keenly felt the burden of leading the nation in the wake of the deadliest terrorist attack ever on American soil." But the words "arrogance" and "incompetence" jumped out at me. You want to elaborate on what you meant by writing those words?

HAGEL: Sure. Well, I did write those words, and I meant it, and I still mean it. And I think it was arrogance and incompetence that put this country in such a hole here around the world -- arrogance, meaning that they wouldn't listen to anyone. They didn't listen to our allies.

Every major leader in the Middle East that I talked to -- and I certainly know the president and others talked to before we invaded Iraq -- warned the president, warned the vice president, warned [then-]Secretary [of State Colin] Powell not to do this. Even a number of senior Israeli officials warned them not to do it. Members of Congress asked questions. I was among those who said, wait a minute, slow down. Let the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, officials finish their job. Slow this train down. They wouldn't listen to anybody. It was just raw arrogance. Incompetence? I think it was incompetence.

[end video clip]

BLITZER: Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator from Nebraska, speaking with me.

Posted In
Elections, National Security & Foreign Policy, War in Iraq
The Situation Room
John McCain, 2008 Elections
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.