Questions for Secretary of Defense Nominee Chuck Hagel

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Photo Credit: Department of Defense | Glen Fawcett

This Thursday, former senator Chuck Hagel will appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee to seek confirmation as secretary of defense. While he will not have primary responsibility for U.S. foreign relations in that post, he will have substantial influence over U.S. policy toward regimes that are hostile to both American interests and democracy. Senator Hagel’s record on these issues raises critical questions that should be addressed during the hearing:

  1. During your career in the Senate, you often spoke out against American unilateralism and expressed skepticism about sanctions. You supported various forms of development assistance but rarely addressed the role that democracy promotion should play in U.S. foreign policy. Do you believe that democratic standards should figure into U.S. relations with authoritarian regimes? If so, how?
  1. As a supporter of U.S. dialogue with Iran’s leaders, you have cautioned against policies of “regime change” and encouraged the United States to acknowledge Iran’s influence in the Middle East. What evidence do you see that Iran’s leaders will negotiate seriously on their nuclear program and other matters? And should the United States accept Iran’s military support for Syria’s government, Hezbollah, and Hamas?
  1. In 2008, you called for engagement with Syria. The Obama administration made serious efforts to open talks with the Assad regime, as it did with Iran and Cuba, but was rebuffed in each case. Do you think that engagement with these countries, which oppose both U.S. interests and democratic values, is still feasible? If so, why?
  1. You are a strong supporter of multilateralism and reliance on the United Nations to resolve crises around the world. Do you favor the formation of international coalitions outside of UN structures when, as with Syria today, one or two countries are blocking serious efforts to stop mass atrocities?
  1. The 2009 report of the Commission on U.S. Policy Toward Russia, which you cochaired, urged the United States to soft-pedal on human rights violations and the Russian government’s antidemocratic policies in order to pursue improved cooperation on arms control and other geopolitical concerns. In recent months, however, President Vladimir Putin has cracked down on civil society and political opposition in Russia while stoking anti-Americanism and continuing to support the Assad regime in Syria. Do you now favor a stronger U.S. stance against Putin’s repression?
  1. You have been a consistent and outspoken advocate of withdrawal from Afghanistan. You have seldom, if ever, addressed the potential impact of such a pullout on Afghans whose lives have benefited from the removal of the Taliban regime, particularly Afghan women and girls. As the U.S. military presence winds down, are you confident that the Afghan people are secure from domination by a revived Taliban? Should the United States and its allies have in place a contingency plan to prevent the Taliban from seizing power?
  1. In 2008, you were among a group of senators who wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to urge an end to U.S. sanctions against Cuba. However, even as it selectively enacts economic reforms, the Castro regime has shown little interest in improving relations with the United States, kept U.S. contractor Alan Gross in prison, and continued to deny Cuban citizens their fundamental rights. How can the United States lift its sanctions on Cuba without appearing to reward the Castro regime’s unrelenting hostility to democratic change?
  1. What steps will you take to ensure that U.S. military cooperation and training with Burma, Cambodia, and other countries with a history of human rights abuses adhere to the Leahy law, which bans U.S. assistance to foreign military units that commit such abuses?
  1. While a few Arab countries have made progress toward democratic rule since the 2011 uprisings, a number of U.S. allies in the region have engaged in violent crackdowns to suppress popular demands for reform. Bahrain, which hosts a U.S. naval base, clearly falls into the latter camp. As secretary of defense, how would you use the military relationship with Bahrain to push it onto a more stable, democratic path? And would you be prepared to reconsider the relationship if the government continues to resist change and punish dissent?

* Zselyke Csaky and Andrew Rizzardi provided research for this blog post.

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

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