It was, at the time, one of those moments in Washington when politicians seem to let down their guard. Private sentiments — formed during late-night votes, in Capitol Hill hallway chats and in far-flung locales across the globe — slip into the public eye.
In late September of 2008, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee subpanel was nearing the end of a hearing. One well-known Democratic member had to depart early, but not before heaping praise on a retiring senator of the subcommittee from the other party.
“There are a few folks on the other side of the aisle who have just been superb in their willingness to reach across the aisle, to put the country ahead of their party,” the Democratic senator said, “to think out loud and be willing to tell it the way they see it.
“[We] share the common experience of an uncommonly unpopular war in the difficult period of our country’s history. And I think, we both learned a lot of the same lessons from that experience, and we both try to apply them here in our conduct of public policy,” the Democrat said of their service during the Vietnam conflict. “I consider myself very lucky to have him as a colleague and have him as a friend.”
Those words were uttered by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., about then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
Kerry also spoke of his “deep personal admiration” for Hagel, who was roundly criticized by his own political party when, in 2006, he publicly expressed opposition to the George W. Bush administration’s Iraq war. At the same hearing, Hagel thanked Kerry for his “friendship” and “cooperation” while both were senators.
The comments shine a light on the deep respect that former aides and insiders say exists between the two Vietnam and Senate veterans, and offer insights into their likely working relationship if both are confirmed to run the State Department and Pentagon.
As both departments look for a foothold in the post-Iraq/Afghanistan era while battling for federal funds amid budget cuts, some experts say the evolution of the Hagel-Kerry relationship will be key.
Andrew Natsios, a former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator, said Hagel and Kerry might have a good relationship, but in their new positions, they will face demands lawmakers never have to worry about: implementing — not designing — policies.
“It is very difficult to manage at the federal level, especially in this era of partisanship,” said Natsios, a Texas A&M University professor. “This is especially true of the Pentagon, the biggest of all the federal agencies. Now, the State Department isn’t as big, but it’s very complicated and old, and the older agencies are, the harder it is to get the bureaucracy to do things. It’s not easy to run the State Department because the career Foreign Service will do what they have always done.”
Washington insiders suggest the White House will seek to install deputies under Hagel and Kerry with proven private-sector and government management experience. That’s no panacea, Natsios said.
Once in a management post, “the former legislator often will simply overrule the deputy without fully understanding why — they just don’t like what the deputy is doing,” the former USAID administrator said.
“Putting in a management deputy doesn’t automatically fix that void.”
But several former aides who worked with the two senators used terms like “respect” and “smooth” and “mutual respect” when describing the Hagel-Kerry working relationship.
The one-time staffers said the duo’s relationship, similar worldview, commitment to diplomacy first and force only when necessary, and respect spawned from one of America’s most controversial wars, should allow them to work well together.
“Hagel and Kerry share a similar, internationalist worldview, and both are a good match with the [Barack] Obama administration,” said Andrew Parasiliti, who served as Hagel’s foreign policy adviser in the Senate and is editor of the e-journal “Al-Monitor.”
“They might also bring a new chemistry to the Obama national security team,” he said. “They get along well and served together, and served with then-Sens. Obama and [Joseph] Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The relationships and trust here are well-established.”
Parasiliti said it is important to “not overstate the Vietnam link with Hagel and Kerry.” But, he added, “It is a bond they share between them, and with combat veterans of Vietnam and other wars.”
The former senators’ relationship will surely be tested if they ascend to the top spots in two departments that long have treated one another as rivals. Will Hagel and Kerry resemble the tense relationship of Secretary of State Colin Powell and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, or the partnership of the Hillary Clinton-Robert Gates years at Foggy Bottom and the E-Ring?
Several current and former senior State Department officials described the consequences of a poor personal relationship between the secretary of state and the defense secretary.
Powell and Condoleezza Rice at the State Department and Rumsfeld and Robert Gates at DoD had their issues during the administration of President George W. Bush. Those personal conflicts spilled over into poor relations between the departments and large-scale communication problems.
With two wars waged and the broader response to the attacks of Sept. 11 occupying policy attention, DoD took over a number of responsibilities historically left to the State Department, and didn’t tap into state expertise in a number of areas.
The current and former senior officials largely blamed this inability to work together for a number of the strategic failures of the Iraq war, in particular not recognizing the potential impacts of religious and cultural differences in Iraq. Early on, the Obama administration pushed to reframe the relationship between the two departments.
That effort to engender improved relations got a big boost because Gates and Clinton hit it off early during her tenure, and Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta also are known to be chummy.
“The direction came from the top, and it was helped by the close personal relationship that Secretary Clinton was able to develop with Secretary Gates and Adm. [Michael] Mullen,” said Andrew Shapiro, assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, referring to the former Joint Chiefs chairman. “When principals send those signals, it filters down through the bureaucracy.”
The Political-Military Affairs Bureau serves as the bridge between the two departments for the Department of State. Shapiro, who joined the State Department in June 2009, has overseen much of the transition in the relationship.
“I think that coming off the Iraq war, and the shift in administrations, there was a desire to rebalance the relationship between the State Department and the Defense Department, to put the State Department in its rightful role as the leading agency for U.S. foreign policy,” Shapiro said.
To that end, Shapiro helped negotiate a memorandum of understanding (MoU) between State and DoD designed to codify new cooperative efforts, including increased personnel exchanges and joint funding efforts. The deal took two years to negotiate and was signed last year.
“What we’ve tried to do, through the signing of the MoU, through the increase in the POLAD [Foreign Policy Advisor] program, through establishing the Global Security Contingency Fund, through our efforts to increase State’s role in planning, is to make those changes institutionalized so that they’re not just based on the personalities of the principals,” Shapiro said.
“It will take a large effort to undo it, and so that has institutionalized the close working relationship. At the end of the day, why would you take that huge effort to undo it?”
It will be up to Hagel and Kerry, if both are confirmed, and their lieutenants in lower-level positions to ensure such undoing is avoided.
The interest in working together doesn’t appear to be one-sided. In particular, the POLAD program, which places senior Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) with military commands and DoD offices, has been immensely popular. Where several years ago there were only about a dozen FSOs placed, the program has grown to nearly 100. Much of the growth has been triggered by requests from commanders who have asked for POLADS to advise them.
While Shapiro is bullish on the ability of the improved relationship to continue regardless of the future secretaries, not everyone is quite so optimistic.
During a conference last year where Shapiro spoke, John Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former deputy defense secretary, described the relationship between DoD and state as difficult at times, and the current situation as delicate.
“I always used to say, these are two organizations, they love each other like brothers: Cain and Abel,” Hamre said.
“When talking with Secretary Shapiro before we came in, I asked the question, will this last? And, of course, with great optimism, Andrew said, it’s permanent,” Hamre said. “And I certainly want that to be the case. But I think it’s important that we realize this is a fragile little flower that’s growing in a hostile landscape. And it’s going to require support and nourishing from all of us.”