POLITICS
07/04/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hagel Praises North Korea Deal, Suggests Placing Diplomatic Post In Iran

At a speech to the Brookings Institution on Thursday, the famously independent-minded Sen. Chuck Hagel avoided making any overt partisan noises about the presidential race, instead pleading with Barack Obama and John McCain not to "polarize" the public.

Most notable was Hagel's explicit praise for the Bush administration's part in the North Korea deal announced today, in which some sanctions against Pyongyang and its status on the U.S. list of state terror sponsors are set to be rescinded in exchange for greater transparency regarding its nuclear program and the destruction of a cooling tower next to a nuclear reactor. Hagel said the development was the result of "painstaking, multilateral diplomacy."

Such praise puts Hagel in line with Obama, who has also cautiously supported the deal, saying in a statement today that America "should continue to pursue the kind of direct and aggressive diplomacy with North Korea that can yield results."

(For his part, McCain was decidedly less effusive, saying: "It is important to remember our goal has been the full, permanent and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. That must remain our goal. ... If we are unable to fully verify the declaration submitted today and if I am not satisfied with the verification mechanisms developed, I would not support the easing of sanctions on North Korea.")

Meanwhile, in his speech to the crowd at Brookings, Hagel also continued to weigh in on one of the most contentious foreign policy questions in the race thus far, regarding the wisdom diplomacy with Iran. As the Huffington Post reported previously, Hagel has long sounded off in favor of increased engagement with Iran.

But today the Nebraska Repubican went further than he had previously by backing the idea of opening up a diplomatic post -- dubbed a "U.S. Interest Section" -- in Tehran, a proposal that's reported to be gaining traction inside the Bush administration. When pressed on that statement during the Q&A session following his speech, Hagel said:

"Obviously we can't just fly over Tehran and drop in an interest section. But in the conversations I've had with Iran's ambassador to the United Nations ... and other indications I have, that is an area we could explore. I don't know why that would not be in our interest to do that. ... That doesn't mean diplomatic recognition. But that is a way to start moving."

That continued emphasis on ramping up diplomatic ties with Iran, coupled with support for new tactics for how to achieve that goal, would seem to reflect the notion suspected by many that Hagel's views are gravitating farther and farther away from his party's presidential nominee. "Engagement is not appeasement. Diplomacy is not appeasement," Hagel underlined in his speech. "Great nations engage. Powerful nations must be the adults in world affairs. Anything less will result in disastrous, useless, preventable global conflict."

Hagel also recommended returning America's ambassador to Syria.

Elsewhere in his speech, Hagel admitted that Iraq, along with Afghanistan, would remain "centers of gravity for U.S. foreign policy" through the next president's inauguration. Still, he said it will be the responsibility of the next president to "pursue a responsible phased troop withdrawal from Iraq that will slowly, steadily, but surely bring to an end the U.S. occupation of Iraq."

Regarding Iran's influence in Iraq -- which he called "not particularly helpful" -- Hagel said it is simply a reflection of reality on the ground, given the shared Shia brand of Islam practiced in the two countries and the fact that several of Iraq's present government officials were exiled in Iran during the era of Saddam Hussein's rule. "You're not going to push that back and act like it's not there," he said.