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Former Rep. Lee Hamilton Urges Importance Of Engagement In ISIS Fight


Today at the White House, President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 17 athletes, activists, entertainers and politicians. It's the highest civilian honor here in the U.S. One of the recipients is former Congressman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat from Indiana who served in the House for 34 years. After Congress, Hamilton was vice chairman of the 9/11 Commission, which found intelligence failures leading up to those terrorist attacks. Hamilton told us getting Republican and Democrats on the commission to agree on a final report was not easy.

LEE HAMILTON: I can remember going across the 14th Street Bridge driving to my home in Northern Virginia at 3, 4 o'clock in the morning saying to myself, we're never going to reach an agreement here.

MCEVERS: After the 9/11 Commission, Hamilton also co-chaired the Iraq Study Group, which looked at the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its aftermath. And now Lee Hamilton is 84. When he found out he won the award, I asked him what he thinks the U.S. should do about ISIS after the latest round of terrorist attacks in Paris. He says diplomacy and engagement should come before force.

HAMILTON: It's a multifaceted problem and it takes a multifaceted response. We naturally have a tendency in this country to turn to the gun first because the American military is so impressive, so dominant. And the military's part of any equation is hugely important, but it's not sufficient. And so we have to look at the diplomatic and the public relations of the economic aspects of the problem and not let our focus on the military dominate to the point that we do not use the other tools of American power.

MCEVERS: You know, you talk about engagement. I mean, it's not as if ISIS has an embassy. I mean, we know we can't engage with them directly, so what do we do?

HAMILTON: Well, I think on the military side we up the pressure. But you also have to recognize that we've got to have some help from the Arab states, not just on the military side. We've got to support them with training and equipment and intelligence and all kinds of aid. We have to better understand the allure of extremism and to take it head on. And that means we've got a great story to tell with our values and what we stand for in the world and they have a terrible, horrible story to tell. We have to up our game on the diplomatic side as well. Let's see if we can stop that civil war in Syria or at least get a cease-fire. And we've got to get all of these things I've been talking about - and some I'm sure I've missed - comprehensively implemented to bear down on ISIS as the cancer in the region.

MCEVERS: You've also written and spoken a lot about how the U.S. should engage directly with its foes - Iran and Syria. We - the U.S. has now engaged directly with Iran on the nuclear deal. But what about Syria? Should we engage directly with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a way to negotiate with him to - for him - to see him eventually leave power, to try to find a solution in Syria?

HAMILTON: Well, how do you solve the problem in Syria without dealing with Assad? My basic view is that you don't make peace just by talking to your friends. You have to talk to your adversaries. The premise that many people seem to have in this country is that we don't talk to those guys. They're bad guys. In the famous words of Vice President Cheney, we don't negotiate with evil. We defeat it. But don't turn to the gun too quickly. Is it an important part of your power? Yes, indeed it is, but so is diplomacy and trying to work through these problems. I don't suggest that's easy. I certainly don't suggest it's quick. But there are times it can be effective - not at all times. There are times when you have to use the force. But don't reject the other tools.

MCEVERS: That's Lee Hamilton who has just won the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Thank you so much for being with us today.

HAMILTON: Thank you very much, a pleasure to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.