"I would be very careful to advise a president of the United States to get NATO actively involved in Syria." Hagel said Tuesday at the Atlantic Council. "I think we can help, we should help, and many of us are, in our own way. But that problem in the Middle East is so deep, so wide, so combustible, so rift with so many uncontrollable elements, that it ain't gonna be solved by NATO."
Part of Hagel's concerns stem from the visual of a European alliance coming into a region where there is "still a bit of hangover from European colonization," he said.
"I think the last thing we want to do is once again impose Western will, Western institutions" in the region, Hagel said. "I hope we learned a lesson in Iraq. It won't work. It never has worked in history."
"NATO can be a vehicle through which we pursue that, but it's not a substitute. Too many American politicians think of NATO as 'them,' and too many European politicians think of NATO as us, the Americans. It's not a self-executing organization. It just doesn't exist in a vacuum," Wilson said. "That's why it's not going to be an easy answer for Syria if we don't have a strategy in Washington and Berlin and London."
As part of the discussion about how to dissuade Russia, Hagel was asked whether the US should be sending offensive technology to Ukraine or other non-NATO countries that could be threatened by the Putin government.
The former secretary pointed out that Ukraine's military would struggle to handle higher-end weapons, due to a lack of training. However, he did say he would like to see NATO strengthen its cyber capabilities in light of the asymmetrical warfare that Russia has used in the region.
"The technology issue will continue to be an important one all the way around, because one real threat, it's a tremendous threat to our country and all countries, is cyber warfare. And it gets lost in the brutality of what's going on and has been going on in the Middle East and eastern Ukraine. There is an area that I pushed hard, when was secretary of defense, within NATO to upgrade the technology," he said.
That lines up with comments from Adam Thomson, UK Permanent Representative to NATO, who told Defense News in a May 2 interview that he expects cyber and ISR to be a big topic of discussion in Warsaw.
"It will be ISR, it will be cyber defense, it will be mobility. It will be multinationality — something very important NATO brings, it's not just the United States or the United Kingdom defending Poland or the Baltic republics or other Eastern allies," Thomson said.
While avoiding giving his support to any of the remaining presidential candidates, Hagel did bat down the idea, launched by expected republican candidate Donald Trump, that NATO is no longer relevant for US interests.
"It is clearly in our self-interest to have these alliances be present," Hagel 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.