Hagel The Salesman Makes A Trip To India

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is in India. The visit is part of a broader U.S. strategy to strengthen alliances in Asia and the Pacific.

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In the hours leading up to yesterday's airstrikes on Iraq, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was pursuing longer goals. The former Republican senator turned Pentagon chief was on his way to New Delhi. This trip was part of a broader push by the Obama administration to shift away from the Middle East to points further east. But that effort in India quickly got sidetracked. NPR's David Welna is traveling with Hagel and has this report.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: As he flew aboard the Pentagon chief's jumbo jet en route to New Delhi, Secretary Hagel explained his motives for going there to us reporters traveling with him.

SECRETARY OF DEFENSE CHUCK HAGEL: I'm going to listen and I'm going to learn and find, if I can, more ways where we can develop opportunities to work together.

WELNA: Hagel is the third cabinet secretary this past month to visit India. Secretary of State John Kerry and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker were here earlier. They say it's to get better acquainted with India's new nationalistic, yet pragmatic, prime minister, Narendra Modi. Such attention is quite a change. For most of the past decade, the U.S. had denied Modi a visitor's visa. With India's prime minister set to meet with President Obama next month at the White House, Hagel says the U.S. is sensitive to the fact that India has long been a leader of non-aligned nations.

HAGEL: And we respect that. We take note of that. Optics are important.

WELNA: And so is business. The U.S. has plenty of arms deals it wants to make with India. And Hagel's a determined salesman.

HAGEL: These things just don't happen. India has many options to do many things with different partners on all fronts. And we're well aware of that. So this is a high priority.

WELNA: Among other things, the U.S. wants to co-develop with India an anti-tank missile known as the Javelin - a weapon India could use against its neighbor and longtime adversary, Pakistan. Again, Chuck Hagel.

HAGEL: The sooner we can find ways - the United States and India to participate in these areas of mutual benefit and also concern, I think the better - as we see this world that is uncertain and complicated and dangerous and unpredictable.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET TRAFFIC)

WELNA: Just how unpredictable the world can be quickly became clear on the ground in New Delhi. Hagel did meet yesterday with India's prime minister and other top officials. But another development involving the U.S. ended up dominated the evening TV news here.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And America decides to bite the bullet against the ISIS threat. The U.S. President Barack Obama has ordered his warplanes to carry out airstrikes in Iraq to counter the ISIS advance. But American's allies...

WELNA: Hagel himself was immersed in the decision-making that led to the U.S. return to arms in Iraq. Last night he skipped a dinner India's defense minister was holding in his honor so he could take part in White House deliberations on Iraq. Hagel criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a senator. Yesterday, he sounded reluctant about returning to that battleground.

HAGEL: This is an Iraqi responsibility. This is not a U.S. responsibility. We will help where we can. And we'll continue to support the Iraqi government, as well as the Iraqi security forces.

WELNA: For all that, the tilt toward the Asia-Pacific region does continue. Hagel's next stop? Sydney, Australia. David Welna, NPR News, New Delhi.

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