OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The United States’ military is facing a number of challenges in the coming years, from budget cuts to civil war in Syria, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Wednesday in Omaha.

Hagel’s remarks came before a crowd of about 300 at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, where Hagel earned a bachelor’s degree of science in history some 40 years ago. It was Hagel’s first trip to Nebraska since being confirmed as defense secretary.

U.S. policy decisions regarding the conflict in Syria have consequences “both for action and inaction,” he said, and those consequences are being weighed by President Barack Obama and the National Security Council to help shape events not only in Syria, but the region.

Hagel, who said last month that the U.S. was considering arming Syrian rebels, made no mention of that possibility Wednesday. He did not take questions from reporters.

Iran presents another Middle East foreign policy challenge, he said.

If asked, the U.S. would work with Iran’s newly-elected president-elect to mend relations, Hagel said.

“If Iran lives up to its obligations on its nuclear program with the U.N. Security Council … it will find a partner in the United States,” he said.

But the U.S. remains committed to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, “and all options remain on the table to achieve this,” he said.

Hagel also bemoaned Congress’ continued rejection of Defense Department requests to shutter U.S. military bases and facilities that are no longer needed.

“If we are to preserve our military combat power and readiness … we still must make critical investments in a 21st century defense strategy, and deep, political institutional opposition to these management reforms and restructures will have to be engaged head-on and overcome,” Hagel said. “We cannot continue to support and fund infrastructure we do not need, especially as we bring down our forces and a new set of threats is emerging for this country.”

Hagel’s visit came a day after the Pentagon announced a plan to bring women into thousands of combat jobs, including those in elite special operations forces.

Hagel made no mention of the plan in his speech Wednesday, but he did note his concern regarding increasing rates of sexual assaults in the military.

“That has to be fixed. That’s a disgrace,” he said, garnering applause.

Hagel, a former two-term Republican U.S. senator for Nebraska, will visit U.S. Strategic Command on Offutt Air Force Base south of Omaha on Thursday for a series of briefings.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)


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