Hagel: U.S. Should Recognize Limits of Military Force

As the nation comes off a “perpetual war footing,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warns again relying too heavily on military might.

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks about defense security and defense budgets at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Global Security Forum in Washington, DC, November 5, 2013.
National Journal
Kevin Baron, Defense One
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Kevin Baron, Defense One
Nov. 5, 2013, 6:19 a.m.

De­fense Sec­ret­ary Chuck Hagel, in a ma­jor speech out­lining the breadth of post-war glob­al se­cur­ity re­spons­ib­il­it­ies the United States faces, called for great­er use of ci­vil­ian “in­stru­ments of power,” say­ing the na­tion should do more to re­cog­nize the lim­its of mil­it­ary force.

Hagel de­livered his vis­ion in per­haps the most sig­ni­fic­ant speech of his term in of­fice so far. The former sen­at­or and Vi­et­nam vet­er­an came to of­fice with a repu­ta­tion as a non­in­ter­ven­tion­ist who ad­voc­ated against the Ir­aq war. But quickly Hagel has faced a myri­ad of se­cur­ity chal­lenges from Syr­ia im­plod­ing in the Middle East to ter­ror­ism seep­ing in­to North­ern Africa and massive leaks of clas­si­fied in­form­a­tion from the Na­tion­al Se­cur­ity Agency. On Tues­day, Hagel stepped back from those du­ties to give a lengthy ad­dress warn­ing that while the U.S. has yet to de­term­ine the lim­its of its se­cur­ity re­spons­ib­il­it­ies the ap­plic­a­tion of mil­it­ary force must be “used wisely, pre­cisely and ju­di­ciously.”

It’s not a new mes­sage from a Pentagon chief. Hagel noted that former De­fense Sec­ret­ary Robert Gates, a Re­pub­lic­an like Hagel, made a sim­il­ar call to less­er arms in 2008, right after the height of the Ir­aq war. But with more dis­tance from Ir­aq and the end of Afgh­anistan near, Hagel said the world’s se­cur­ity chal­lenges re­quire re­newed com­mit­ment to ful­fill “the prom­ise of that com­mis­sion” from Sec­ret­ary Gates.

“While these chal­lenges are not Amer­ica’s re­spons­ib­il­ity alone, they will de­mand Amer­ica’s con­tin­ued glob­al lead­er­ship and en­gage­ment,” Hagel said at the Cen­ter for Stra­tegic and In­ter­na­tion­al Stud­ies. “No oth­er na­tion has the will, the power, the ca­pa­city, and the net­work of al­li­ances to lead the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity. However, sus­tain­ing our lead­er­ship will in­creas­ingly de­pend not only on the ex­tent of our great power, but an ap­pre­ci­ation of its lim­its and a wise de­ploy­ment of our in­flu­ence.”

“We re­main the world’s only glob­al lead­er. However, the in­si­di­ous dis­ease of hubris can undo Amer­ica’s great strengths. We also must not fall prey to hubris.”

Hagel said the U.S. is per­haps too close to the war years to un­der­stand or pri­or­it­ize what se­cur­ity chal­lenges it faces at hand, but that the time has come to “ad­apt and ad­just” as the na­tion moves from a “per­petu­al war foot­ing.”

“As the United States makes this trans­ition to what comes after the post-9/11 era, we are only be­gin­ning to see the dra­mat­ic shifts un­der­way that will define our fu­ture and shape our in­ter­ac­tions in the world,” Hagel said. “Not since the dec­ade after World War II has man­kind wit­nessed such a re­align­ment of in­terests, in­flu­ences, and chal­lenges.”

One new char­ac­ter­ist­ic to emerge in the post-war years, Hagel ar­gued, was the com­mon threat of ter­ror­ism to all na­tion-states, re­quir­ing great­er co­oper­a­tion among friends and ad­versar­ies.

“The chal­lenge of ter­ror­ism has evolved as it has meta­stas­ized since 9/11. This has re­quired and will con­tin­ue to de­mand un­pre­ced­en­ted col­lab­or­a­tion with part­ners and al­lies on coun­terter­ror­ism ef­forts. Many share a com­mon threat — re­gard­less of state-to-state dif­fer­ences or polit­ic­al ideo­lo­gies.”

Hagel is a pro­ponent of al­li­ances and has writ­ten ex­tens­ively on the need to find com­mon threads that can con­nect even Ir­an to the United States.

“In the 21st cen­tury, the United States must con­tin­ue to be a force for, and an im­port­ant sym­bol of, hu­man­ity, free­dom, and pro­gress. We must also make a far bet­ter ef­fort to un­der­stand how the world sees us, and why. We must listen more.”

Hagel lauded the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s use of mil­it­ary force to pres­sure As­sad in­to giv­ing up Syr­ia’s chem­ic­al stock­piles, and said a sim­il­ar non­vi­ol­ent path still ex­ists for Ir­an to give up its nuc­le­ar am­bi­tions.

“In both cases our mil­it­ary power has been an im­port­ant part of the work to pos­sibly find dip­lo­mat­ic res­ol­u­tions to dif­fi­cult and in­ter­con­nec­ted in­ter­na­tion­al prob­lems,” Hagel said.

This art­icle ori­gin­ally ran on De­fense One.

“Amer­ica’s hard power will al­ways be crit­ic­al to fash­ion­ing en­dur­ing solu­tions to glob­al prob­lems. But our suc­cess ul­ti­mately de­pends not on any one in­stru­ment of power. It de­pends on all of our in­stru­ments of power.”

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