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Pocket Protector

Chuck Hagel, the Senate's newest wise man.

Hagel belongs to a familiar Washington breed. During the cold war, Capitol Hill overflowed with farm-state Kissingers like Lee Hamilton and Richard Lugar, whose stake in stable export markets coincided with the foreign policy establishment's distaste for anything that upset the global status quo. Former secretaries of state and national security advisers would whisper in their ears; tutor them in the complexities of the international scene; and persuade them that selling stuff to dictators not only benefited their constituents, but also benefited mankind.

Hagel updated this model for the post-cold-war era. Elected to the Senate in 1996, he sought out an assignment on the Foreign Relations Committee and immediately waded into high-visibility debates over global warming, IMF funding, and sanctions. Along the way, he befriended such Bush pere eminences as Brent Scowcroft, James Baker, and Colin Powell--all of whom Hagel still speaks with regularly. Before long the senator from Nebraska was peppering his speeches with references to Toynbee and Metternich, inveighing against America's tendency "to moralize to others," and insisting that trade fosters stability and democracy--especially in Iran, whose agricultural markets remained off-limits to American farmers.

The 1990s were an ideal time for such arguments. It was the era of geoeconomics and commercial diplomacy. Clinton administration Trade Representative Mickey Kantor declared: "The days when we could afford to subordinate our economic interests to foreign policy or defense concerns are long past." His boss suggested that we didn't need to choose, because economic and foreign policy interests were really the same thing. Indeed, the United States could build "peace through trade, investment, and commerce."

Hagel, the co-founder of America's second-largest independent cell phone company, fervently preached the gospel. "The future for America, the future for growth, the future for our children, the future for our entitlement programs, the future for every part of our life is trade," Hagel declaimed last April. "Not only the economic dynamic is so anchored by trade, but also our security, geopolitical parts of the bigger equation of how we deal with our allies and adversaries in this still-unpredictable world." Hagel elaborated upon this theme in front of oil-industry-funded groups like the Iranian Trade Association and the American-Iranian Council (AIC) and at the 1999 US-Iranian Agricultural Conference. And he was one of only two senators (Lugar was the other) to vote last year against a five-year extension of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA), a bill that threatens sanctions against foreign firms doing business with either country--and against which oil and agribusiness companies lobbied furiously.

September 11, needless to say, quieted the commercial diplomats. But in recent weeks Hagel has begun making the case again--serving as a kind of human trial balloon for the proposition that, war on terrorism or no war on terrorism, the United States should engage the foremost state sponsor of terrorism. As he put it last week, "When nations are trading ... they are far less likely to go to war, they are far less likely to find dictators running the country." Hagel, indeed, has highlighted Tehran's "cooperation" in Afghanistan and declined at first to concede Iran's involvement in the Karine A arms shipment to the Palestinian Authority. He claims that "because of that 'axis of evil' statement" the United States may have retarded reform efforts in Iran; and, on March 13, he will address another conference about Iran, this one co-sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AIC. "It was not helpful to have Iran included in that group the axis of evil," Hagel complained to the Associated Press. "I think it does not give Iran any incentive to try and act in a responsible way."

As it happens, Hagel's geopolitical interest in Iran neatly coincides with Nebraska's commercial interest in Iran. "The farmers, the ranchers, and the small-business people in Nebraska have understood foreign policy long before any fancy professors at Harvard figured it out--long before," Hagel argued in 1999. "And you know why? Not because they're any smarter, but because it was relevant, because they understood a long time ago that if you can't sell your corn, your beef, your pork, and your small-business products, that impacts every facet of your life." Hagel delivered this populist lesson at the annual meeting of The Trilateral Commission--in a room filled with Harvard alumni and presumably very few Nebraskans. But he could just as easily have given it in Omaha. In 2000, agricultural exports accounted for over one-third of the state's $9 billion farm receipts--a figure Hagel tried to boost in 1999 by pressing for a waiver to export $500 million worth of agricultural products to Tehran. And, according to Federal Election Commission filings and the Center for Responsive Politics, Hagel has received nearly $500,000 dollars in agribusiness and energy-sector donations during his first term; in this election cycle he ranks as the Senate's fifth-largest recipient of oil and gas money. In fact, when it isn't in Nebraska's interest, Hagel's philosophical commitment to engagement tends to evaporate. In 1999, for example, he pressed the Clinton administration to implement even tougher sanctions than were already in place against European countries that banned imports of American beef treated with hormones.

There's nothing wrong with representing your constituents, of course. The press, however, often touts Hagel as a disinterested wise man--the calm voice of reason amidst a sea of gung-ho yahoos. (Just this week The New York Times cooed that he "has become a prominent voice on foreign policy.") But when it comes to Iran--particularly during our war against terrorism--America's political interest and Nebraska's commercial interests do not converge. Hagel argues that a policy of engagement will nudge Tehran toward reform. But it could just as easily create an American interest in maintaining Iran's political status quo. "When Clinton engaged Tehran," recalls Azar Nafisi, author of a forthcoming book about her experiences as a dissident in Iran, "there was much less vocal support in Washington for the students, intellectuals, and journalists who were truly fighting for reform." Nor is it necessarily true, as Hagel claims, that Iran-Libya sanctions "don't work, they've never worked, they won't work." Iran reported to the United Nations in 1998 that ilsa had "led to the disruption of the country's economic system," a "decline in its gross national product," and a "reduction in international investment." Between 1996, when ilsa was enacted, and 2001, Tehran promoted more than 50 foreign-investment opportunities in its energy sector but received only eight contracts, earning it barely half of what its tiny neighbor, Qatar, did during the same period. (It was also precisely during this period that Iranian reform efforts gained strength.)

But even if commercial ties could be said to promote Iran's long-term democratization, rewarding a country the president has just declared "evil"--and that's now official policy-- hardly furthers the wartime credibility to which Hagel attaches so much importance. As for his conviction that trade and war are all but incompatible, it should have been decisively put to rest 90 years ago at the Marne, and, besides, the Bush team isn't planning a war with Iran. It's merely upholding an existing policy--sanctions--that has allowed the United States to express its displeasure without resorting to force. And President Bush has added to it a valuable statement of moral disapprobation--one that, as Georgetown's Rob Sobhani has put it, "separated the nation of Iran from its oppressive government." Hagel says of America's foreign policy objectives, "It's very easy to make speeches, it's very easy to talk about high-minded morality and what our nation stands for-- ... But the hard part is how do we get there, and trade is one way to help us get there." So is talking about what our nation stands for.

By Lawrence F. Kaplan