Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday offered a strong endorsement for the ongoing international talks with Iran over its nuclear program, saying resolving disputes through negotiations is better than military action.
He also said that Americans' recent reaction to proposals for a U.S. role in Syria's war show that the public is clearly not interested in another fight. After a dozen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with troops still in Afghanistan, Hagel said it appears the U.S. does not want another one.
"We can go to war if that's what you want to do," Hagel said during a DefenseOne interview in Washington. "If you have to go to war, if that's your only recourse, you've got to do that. But you'd better think this thing through before you jump off into war and make these great pronouncements because there are consequences to war.
"And I do think this Congress is probably more cautious about that," Hagel continued. "Look at just a few months ago: We went up to Congress regarding Syria. Boy, it was a pretty clear message on where the American people and Congress are on using military force in Syria."
The reality is, Hagel said, Iran has been "a very dangerous, lethal state sponsor of terrorism" that has caused problems throughout the Middle East, including for the U.S.
"Now if we can move toward some common interest to move to some higher ground, to some possible potential resolution to a problem, aren't we smarter to do that?" he said.
Hagel defended Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been representing the U.S. in the United Nations talks intended to work out an agreement with Iran on its nuclear program. The talks last week failed when the French refused to back a deal.
Afterward, hard-line critics of Iran on Capitol Hill quickly began pressing to tighten even further the economic sanctions that have been crippling Iran's economy for more than 30 years.
"Wait a minute," Hagel said. "We've been literally at some kind of informal, unofficial war with Iran since 1979."
"Iranians have political issues. We have political issues. Our partners have political issues. There are political issues in the Middle East. So this is just going to take time," he said.
Earlier in the interview, Hagel rejected the claim made by critics when he first was nominated for the job nearly a year ago that he was "a noninterventionist."
"I love the simplicity of labels," Hagel said when reminded of the charge by interviewer Kevin Baron of DefenseOne. "Listen, no one in the Senate in the 12 years I was, [was] more of an internationalist than Chuck Hagel ... Do I believe that we should go in and invade and occupy everywhere if we don't get our way? No."