WASHINGTON — Former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said he believes the government of Iraq "squandered" the five-year stretch from 2008 to 2013, paving the way for the rise of the Islamic State group and the chaos of the last two years.
Speaking Monday in Washington, Hagel, who served in that role from 2013 to 2015, also hinted at dissatisfaction with how the Obama administration dealt with the Pentagon during his tenure, indicating that future administrations should lean more on the opinions of the uniformed personnel when weighing foreign policy decisions.
"We couldn't run that government, we should have never tried, couldn't impose our values," Hagel said. "But I think the Iraqi leadership of that country so squandered five years, that allowed to happen what happened over the last two years.
"The breakdown in the Sunni-Shia relationship, the breakdown of the Shia-Kurd relationship, [the] prime minister did not fulfill any of the constitutional requirements and the promises he had made to bring Iraq together," Hagel continued. "I don't blame all that on him – there were forces that were probably bigger than he was able to deal with – but in my opinion, that's what happened in Iraq. The five years were squandered, were wasted, and that's what's led to so much of the turmoil, the trouble, the chaos, the slaughter and the killing in Iraq today."
Asked about the legacy of President Barack Obama on the eve of his final State of the Union speech, Hagel demurred, saying it was "nonsense" to judge Obama until years down the road, let alone before his administration has ended.
However, Hagel indicated dissatisfaction with the way the Obama administration has handled the Pentagon.
During the roundtable event hosted by the National Committee on US-China Relations, Hagel urged politicians to lean more on the advice of top DoD officials.
"I would say as someone who has walked on both sides of the street, the political side and the administration side, politicians have to listen more to our military," Hagel said. "And I don't mean changing the Constitution. I mean listen to our military. They get it better than most politicians on things like this. And some of the finest statesmen I've ever met in my life are in military uniform."
Asked later what his biggest advice for the next president would be when dealing with the Pacific, Hagel limited his response to one word: "Listen."
The comments come weeks after Hagel told Foreign Policy magazine that the Pentagon was hamstrung by interference from the Obama White House. Hagel is long-believed to have butted heads with National Security Adviser Susan Rice, something he did not dispel in that interview.
Asked Monday if he felt advice from the Pentagon had been ignored to the detriment of the Obama presidency, Hagel did not change his tune.
"Well, I've made some comments on this and I think the comment I made here, I'll let that stand," he said.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.