Joshua Hersh Headshot

Chuck Hagel: Drones Play 'Very Important' Part In U.S. Use Of Force

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CHUCK HAGEL DRONES
Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama's choice for defense secretary, speaks at the White House on Jan. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) | AP

WASHINGTON -- The nominations of John Brennan for CIA director and Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense are widely expected to prompt a new round of inquiry into the counterterrorism strategy of the Obama administration from senators and others.

For Brennan, the questions may largely revolve around his role as overseer of the White House's covert drone program, which has resulted in hundreds of strikes and thousands of deaths, with virtually no outside oversight, in places like Yemen and Pakistan. Some observers have suggested that Hagel, a longtime foreign policy realist who has frequently spoken about the dangers of America's overreaching militarily, might provide a counterpoint to Brennan's assumed support for a robust drone program.

But would he?

As a Republican senator from Nebraska, Hagel opposed the widening of the post-9/11 war on terrorism to Iraq and Iran, and eventually became one of the most aggressive opponents of President George W. Bush's expansive military efforts in the Middle East. But his record on the tools of counterterrorism favored by Obama -- in particular, the emphasis on special operations forces and targeted assassinations by drone strike -- is minimal.

Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran, has typically spoken of his opposition to unnecessary wars in terms of the risks they pose to the troops that fight them, a concern that drones and special forces would seem to ameliorate. In at least one appearance three years ago, Hagel indicated that, in fact, he sees drones in much the same way that Brennan and Obama do: as an indispensable, and less risky, component of America's war on terrorism.

Here is the full quote, from the question-and-answer portion of a September 2009 speech at the College of Saint Benedict in Minnesota, when Hagel detoured from an answer about the surge in Afghanistan to touch on other unstable parts of the region:

Then you've got Pakistan, which probably has more to do with all this than anything else -- not that they're instilling anything. But the reality is, Pakistan is a nuclear power; it's a big country; you've got an area of that country that's never been governed; it's all tribal; it's deep with religious problems and history and conflict. So are we going to put 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and 100,000 in Pakistan? Yemen, Somalia: huge problems. Are we going to put troops there? So what do you do?

Well, the president is going to have to figure out a way that you use force, and we do need to use force, smart, wise application of that force -- the drones are very important; we've got huge naval and air presence in the Persian Gulf all along that area -- without bogging down armies and really taking big casualties and putting a lot of money in.

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