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Washington's Going to War ... And Chuck Hagel's in Brunei


An intervention in Syria is expected to take over American airwaves any day now, but here on the sun-baked coast of Borneo, all there is to see are the choreographed pleasantries of small-bore diplomacy. Ten American reporters have accompanied U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to the tiny nation of Brunei (anthem: “God Bless the Sultan”), where he is attending a conference of Southeast Asian defense officials, even while back at the Pentagon the wheels of the war machine he commands are beginning to grind in earnest. The morning's plan—what the affable Marine press wrangler calls the scheme of maneuver—is as follows: Reporters will stage on the eastern side of the doorway to capture the arrival of Hagel, who will at any moment now appear at the western end of the hallway. Once he enters the meeting room, the reporters will shift to the western side of the doorway and turn around to capture the Minister of Defense from Japan, who will be approaching from the corridor’s eastern terminus. Secretary Hagel and Minister Onodera will exchange greetings at the door; this may be photographed. Then they will proceed to the meeting table and deliver opening statements. When these statements conclude, the reporters will be yanked from the room, and the tete-a-tete, known in diplo-speak as a bilat, for bilateral, will proceed behind closed doors.

The biannual ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting, or ADMM Plus, is in its first day, playing out in the various marbled enclaves of the Empire Hotel & Country Club, a stunningly out-of-scale and depressingly vacant beach resort complex on the outskirts of the sultanate’s capital. At 6:30 AM, the in-room blinds hiss open automatically; at 8:30, ride-on mowers are snarling in tight turns over grass that is already short as a putting green. At 8:45 on this particular morning, a grey-haired man in shorts and a t-shirt appears hesitantly at the edge of the saltwater pool, a towel draped over his arm. It is Hagel himself, security men in tow, evidently trying to figure out which of the nine swimming pools would be appropriate for his morning laps. He moves along out of sight. When he reappears, an hour and a half later, on the hotel’s fifth floor, he is dressed in a standard-issue navy suit, ready for the first of about ten formal and informal sessions.

“I look forward to discussions on some of the substantive issues that will be discussed here at ASEAN in our bilateral,” the secretary says, a bit recursively, in greeting the Japanese minister. Moving to the long banquet table along which their staff delegations are arrayed, the two leaders read their statements from large-type printouts, stanza by stanza, waiting for the interpreters to translate. Minister Onodera makes a concession: “Even though we are facing a very international environment, represented by the situation in Syria,” he says, “the fact that you are participating in the ADMM Plus should be appreciated by all members of ASEAN.” Hagel nods grimly.

In truth, Hagel has good reason for being here. The United States has in the last several years committed itself to what is officially called “the strategic rebalance,” or “pivot”—though the policy chiefs dislike that term—in military and economic posture toward a rising China. In the Southeast Asian context, this involves a significant amping up of so-called mil-to-mil cooperation and a methodical smoothing of feathers over local contentions with Beijing over maritime borders and control of certain small islands in the South China Sea, and generally assuring China’s less enormous neighbors that the United States is engaged in the region. The question of the moment, in these circles, is whether the Defense Department can continue to support the rebalance while its budget is being slashed by the sequester. It’s a big deal in the long-term, and probably more consequential than a few cruise missile volleys into Syria. But in the short term, as explained didactically in an unending stream of buzzwords—“regional,” “mutual,” “strong,” “support”—it can be lethally boring. (In Kuala Lumpur, on the first leg of this trip, Hagel delivered a workmanlike speech on the rebalance to an auditorium full of Malaysian officers; several fell asleep.)

The rebalance is also not what Hagel’s traveling press corps wants to cover at the moment, to its members’ great agitation. All day, all week, Syria questions swarm around their heads like gnats. It is maddening to be so close to the player and so far from the game. As they bump along in the back of underpowered, foreign-make vans, they swap gossip from stateside colleagues about when an attack might come, which assets might be involved. As they huddle in the back of the secretary’s joint press conference in Jakarta, they confer darkly on how to maximize the two questions the American side has been allotted. (SECDEF still won’t budge on operational details: “Until we get all the facts and we are absolutely confident of what happened in Syria, I’m not going to comment on the consequences of actions or inactions.”) With the arrival in Brunei, the eight-day journey is suddenly past its halfway point, and the desks back in Washington, New York, London, are getting anxious: What are you getting? They are not getting much. By the time of Hagel’s third bilat of the day, at 1500, the kinship of news-starvation is beginning to ferment into competitiveness, as it must. A wire reporter is missing. Maybe he has a scoop?, another wonders aloud. (He doesn’t.) Through the window, the green ocean sits flat, tame, meeting the horizon in a perforation of distant oil rigs. There is still no one outside.

Hagel, for his part, doesn’t seem to be enjoying himself any more than the reporters. Taking advantage of the fact that Bruneian nighttime is American daytime, he has been rising in the darkness to participate in secure video teleconferences with the president's national security team; he won't sleep for several days. But right now there's a final meeting on the schedule, with the Vietnamese military leadership, who troop in clad uniformly in green tunics and stiff golden shoulder boards. They take their seats in front of a miniature flag—red field with a gold star—the flag of North Vietnam back in 1968, when young Chuck Hagel took a landmine fragment to the chest. His face as he pulls in his chair is blank. “Welcome, General, again,” he says. The New York Times is reporting that the Administration is planning strikes to “deter and degrade” Syria’s chemical weapons capability, launched from four ships in Hagel’s vast military. But the Secretary of Defense has business at hand. “I look forward to pursuing some of the issues that we talked about at lunch,” he says, “and listening to some of your thoughts on the bilateral relationship that we both are strengthening and developing, as well as your thoughts on this part of the world.” The translator rattles on. In a few moments it is time, once again, to kick out the press. No news.

This post has been updated from the original. 

Reid Cherlin, a former White House assistant press secretary, is a writer living in Brooklyn.