WASHINGTON — Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel couldn't believe the divisive talk he heard from most of the GOP presidential candidates in this week's debate.
"They're all about coming to Washington and just ripping this place down," Hagel said Thursday.
He singled out Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as exceptions to his critique, but said there was too much of the no-compromise rhetoric associated with the Tea Party movement from the others.
"Look at what that's produced," Hagel said. "We can't govern. I'm astounded by that. It's my party and I'm astounded by that."
Hagel spoke to The World-Herald in his office at Gallup's Washington headquarters, where he works as a senior adviser. It's one assignment in a portfolio of projects that Hagel has assembled since leaving the Pentagon in February, reflecting his experience in business, the military and foreign affairs. That includes serving on boards, delivering lectures at Georgetown University, and speaking to groups across the country and around the world. He's also continuing to work with the University of Nebraska at Omaha, his alma mater, on various projects.
Calling out fellow Republicans is nothing new for Hagel. He did so repeatedly during the 12 years he represented Nebraska in the U.S. Senate — notably criticizing the George W. Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War and questioning the qualifications of 2008 vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
While supporters cast him as a maverick unafraid to speak his mind, critics wrote him off as a "RINO" — a Republican in name only — even before he joined President Barack Obama's Cabinet.
What's clear is that as he ramps up his post-Cabinet profile, Hagel plans to offer his perspective on the nation's biggest issues. For example, he wants to see the U.S. engage Russia on the Middle East because he says it's the only path to stability in that region.
And he's not shy about connecting his opinions with the ongoing battle for the White House. Hagel said he understands voter distrust and anger toward politicians and government — sentiments fueling the campaigns of outsiders like Donald Trump, Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina.
But he predicted that many of the GOP candidates will ultimately scare Americans away by threatening to close the government down, rip up the bureaucracy and destroy their opponents.
Trump is a master showman, Hagel said, but he is not qualified to be president. He criticized Trump for not answering questions about what he would actually do if he were elected. "You just can't continue to say, 'They're going to love what I do and I'll get smart people and I'll worry about the details later.' "
Carson has put out "bizarre" proposals on taxes and immigration, Hagel said. And while Fiorina cites lots of facts and figures, he said, she makes a dangerous mistake when stating she wouldn't talk to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Refusing to talk to the Russians — or the Iranians, for that matter — compounds uncertainty.
"That's a good example of having no experience," Hagel said. "That might work in the corporate world. Being president of the United States is not being the CEO of a corporation."
On the other hand, Hagel lauded Kasich's background: 18 years in Congress, chairman of the Budget Committee, senior member of the Armed Services Committee. He noted that Kasich is the popular governor of Ohio, a big, diverse state without which no Republican has ever won the White House.
"I worked with Kasich, I like Kasich. He's very good. He's very responsible," Hagel said. "Kasich is probably the one in my opinion that stands out the most."
He also had nice things to say about Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who he said is inexperienced but has handled himself well. He believes that Democrats would have cause to worry if they faced a ticket combining two of the three: Bush, Rubio, Kasich.
On the other side of the aisle, Hagel noted that he recently had breakfast with longtime friend Vice President Joe Biden. Hagel said he couldn't predict whether Biden will run for the Democratic nomination, but he said Dems may push Biden to do so if Hillary Clinton's support continues to soften. While he disagrees with Biden on many issues, Hagel said Biden's entry into the race would enhance the conversation just from the decency that he brings to the table.
During the Republican debate, Hagel was struck by candidates saying they would tear up the nuclear agreement with Iran, an agreement he worked on as secretary and that he supports.
"This nonsense I hear about, 'But you can't trust the Iranians,' " Hagel said. "You go in not trusting anybody, that's the whole point."
He noted that Ronald Reagan would blast the Soviet Union as the Evil Empire, but he also would sit down and make a deal with its leaders.
The Iran agreement includes robust verification procedures, Hagel said. And he took issue with the critique that it doesn't guarantee that Iran will not pursue nuclear weapons after 15 years.
"Anybody want to guarantee me anything in 15 years? Come on," Hagel said.
Suggestions during this week's debate that the Iranians will do all of the inspections of their nuclear facilities are off-base, he said. The International Atomic Energy Agency will oversee everything, but of course the Iranians will have a role to play.
"You can't go into a sovereign nation, a sophisticated nation and a big nation like Iran and say, 'Well, we're going into all your facilities and your guys are going to have to stay in the parking lot. When we're finished, we'll let you know,' " Hagel said. "There's no country that would let you do that."
And he said the United States will always retain the option of a military strike to take out Iran's nuclear facilities.
While the Iran agreement is a done deal, he said, the Obama administration should avoid chest beating. Instead, he said, it needs to keep trying to bring some Republicans on board to implement the agreement.
As for his dismay at the tone taken by many Republicans today, Hagel counseled patience. The nature of American politics is cyclical.
"I don't despair," Hagel said. "I don't like it. I'm disheartened by it. But not dispirited by it, because I know enough about history. I know enough about our country, that it'll come back."
HAGEL'S CURRENT POSITIONS
Gallup, senior adviser
Rand Corporation, member of the Board of Trustees
McCarthy Group, special adviser
Deutsche Bank, member of North American advisory board
Corsair Capital, member of board of advisers
Atlantic Council, distinguished statesman and honorary chairman
Georgetown University, distinguished executive in residence