Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel found himself on the defensive during a policy speech at the University of Nebraska-Omaha Wednesday with an off-the-cuff Taliban joke before receiving a question from a professor of Indian descent.
The Omaha World-Herald
reported that Robin Gandhi, an assistant professor at the university, was getting ready to address Hagel during the question-and-answer session after Hagel's speech. While waiting for the question, according to the World-Herald, Hagel joked, "You're not a member of the Taliban, are you?
NBC News reported that Hagel just answered a question about the Taliban before the professor's question.
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There was a pause following Hagel's remark, followed by Gandhi's question, a video of the incident showed.
The Pentagon released a statement to the media following Hagel's appearance, stating that the joke was not meant to demean the Gandhi.
“Following a question related to the Taliban, the secretary made an off-the-cuff joke before the next questioner was called or selected at an appearance at the University of Nebraska at Omaha,” said Pentagon spokesman George Little in the statement, according to NBC News. “Absolutely no slight toward any individual in the audience was intended. That's the last thing the secretary would do under any circumstance, in this or any other setting. He didn't know who would be called next to pose a question.”
Nebraska-Omaha's communication's department released a statement on Gandhi's behalf about the exchange.
“I was honored to attend Secretary of Defense Hagel's speech on Wednesday," Gandhi said in the statement, obtained by the World-Herald. "I was able to ask a question, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing his answer. Before I rose to ask a question, there was apparently some confusion that did not involve me.”
The joke overshadowed Hagel's first trip back to his home state and alma mater since being named secretary of state. The World-Herald said Hagel, a former Nebraska U.S. Senator, talked about President Barack Obama's proposal to reduce the nation's nuclear arsenal by 30 percent and negotiating peace talks in Afghanistan, which could include the Taliban.
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Hagel defended the need to cut the military's budget and said the savings could be made through “management reforms and restructuring,” according to the World-Herald.
“A strong, agile and ready military must be used judiciously, with a keen appreciation of its limits,” Hagel said in his 40-minute speech, wrote the World-Herald.
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