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Chuck Hagel Criticizes 'Simplistic' National Security Debate In 2016 Race


Chuck Hagel has a complicated relationship with the Republican Party. He served in the U.S. Senate as a Republican and is still registered with the party, but he's known for criticizing Republicans. And now, as you're about to hear, he has some criticism of the party's presidential candidates, especially on defense. Hagel served as secretary of defense under President Obama. In the Army, he fought and nearly died in Vietnam. When he came by our studio earlier today, I asked him what he thought about the current presidential candidates' positions on national security.

CHUCK HAGEL: Dangerously simplistic. I know campaigns are simplistic. The campaigns are about bumper stickers and glib 10-second responses in debates and all that goes with that. I get that. I think the foreign policy element of this campaign - I hope is going to get fleshed out far more as we get closer to our eventual nominees. You know, we've been in this - through this nutty season that we have, and we love the entertainment, and there's been more entertainment this year than ever, but I hope we sober up like we normally do. And we'll pick two candidates, and then let's get on with the big issues and the serious issues. The next president of the United States is going to be confronted with immense challenges, and most will be international.

MCEVERS: Are there specific statements that you've heard that you find particularly worrying?

HAGEL: One of the candidates' answer to what's going on the Middle East, carpet-bombing the Middle East. I mean, I don't think he even understands what he said.

MCEVERS: Referring to Sen. Ted Cruz.

HAGEL: Yes. Or the repercussions of that and where that would go. Mr. Trump talks about how he would handle the immigration and Muslims, and you know what he said about that. I mean, that's just callously irresponsible and dangerous. Bernie Sanders - who, by the way, I served with in the Senate and in the Congress - I like Bernie, and he's very honest. But the simplistic way of let's focus on our problems here and let every kid go to school free, and let's just dismantle the 1 percent and the world will look a lot better - well, that's all interesting, but as we're trying to do that, the world's crowding in on us from all sides and threatening our interests. So there's just not been any really good conversation. And guys like Gov. Kasich, Gov. Bush in particular, those two do have things to say. Now they've governed, and one of them still does govern. And so there are some responsible candidates that want to talk about these things in a responsible way, but the media gives them very little opportunity to do that because it isn't the "Gong Show" entertainment stuff that gets the ratings, for one thing. I get that. But that said, just like candidates, the media have responsibilities for this process, too.

MCEVERS: I mean, you have often been at odds with your own party. You're a Republican, but you voted for the invasion of Iraq but then later said that you regretted that vote. You opposed the so-called surge in 2007. You actually advocated for talks - direct talks with Iran as early as 2001. And you recently said it was a good idea for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to make an independent run for president.

HAGEL: I said - when I was asked the question about him running for president, I said I think it was a good idea for him to continue to consider it. I also said there may be an opening for a third-party alternative depending on who the two candidates are. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think that's democracy. I think the American people should have choices.

MCEVERS: Do you still think of yourself as a Republican?

HAGEL: Well, I'm not sure what the Republican Party is today, but I know what I believe as a Republican. When I started out, references to Eisenhower Republican or the first Bush Republican, Reagan Republican - I was in a Reagan administration. I was in the Bush One administration. These were Republican parties of, I think, responsible policy toward international affairs, strong military, diplomatic engagement, strong economy, free markets, free trade. You've got now, in my opinion, a Republican Party's that's - it's tribal. You've got probably five different dimensions of a Republican Party that are pretty strident. Yes, I'm still a registered Republican. I don't define who I am based on what everybody else is. I know who I am, and I know what I believe, and I've always taken that position. And sometimes, it doesn't always work to my political benefit.

MCEVERS: That's Republican Chuck Hagel, a former secretary of defense and former senator. Tomorrow on the show, we will talk to him about one of the most contentious debates in the Obama White House, how to handle Syria. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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