Come Hagel or High Water: In the Shade of Iraq

02/01/2013 05:47 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2013

You could tell on inauguration day how determined President Barack Obama was about his pick of Chuck Hagel to be the new secretary of defense. As he signed the warrants officially forwarding his choices for several offices to the Senate, he dropped the levity when it came to the former Republican senator and Vietnam War infantry sergeant. "Charles Timothy Hagel," he intoned, with a determined note of sober formality.

While it's probably not a saying the president uses, Hagel is his choice, come hell or high water. Obama's getting more than a little of both in the bargain. He's going to get Hagel, too. But not thanks to Hagel's public performance skills.

Zeroing in on his greatest concern, Senator John McCain insisted that his former compadre Chuck Hagel give a "yes or no!" answer on the wisdom or lack of same of the Iraq War surge.

For all the valid skepticism about politicians as creatures of circumstance, there are moments when deeper imperatives hold sway. We're seeing this in the Hagel confirmation fight, with grim determination about the merits of the Iraq War animating several of the biggest actors.

Obama knows that, while there were several good reasons why he defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, his views on the Iraq War were probably determinative. In his speech as a U.S. Senate candidate opposing the invasion of Iraq, Obama declared himself to be not an opponent of all wars, just dumb wars. More about that in a moment. When he launched his presidential campaign in 2007, the war was foremost on his agenda. He probably had no idea he'd be called on to deal with the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.

In contrast, Obama's 2008 general election opponent -- and Hagel's chief antagonist in his Senate confirmation hearing -- Senator John McCain, was a great champion of the Iraq War, both the initial invasion and the later surge designed to salvage the war.

It's one of history's little ironies that the two men, who each fancied himself a master of geopolitics, should have ended up fighting over how to revitalize the economy.

Just as Obama is sure he was right about the Iraq War being not just wrong, but wrong-headed, McCain is grimly determined to admit no error. You could see that clearly in Thursday's confirmation hearing, where he began by badgering his one-time compadre Hagel, who gingerly backed the president of his party, George W. Bush, in authorizing the invasion despite his clear public misgivings, then became one of the war's sharpest critics.

Tellingly, McCain didn't zero in on Hagel's openness to talking with terrorist groups or his lack of any enthusiasm for a war with Iran over its nuclear program, he went straight to Iraq. Wisely, he didn't go to the Iraq War in general, now extremely unpopular, but to the Iraq surge, on which he has a better argument to make, especially since it's widely regarded as a success that allowed the U.S. to save face in the short-term, which is where our news media lives.

With a notable undercurrent of anger for so early in the day, McCain confronted Hagel, insisting on a "yes or no" answer on whether the Iraq surge was a good thing or not.

Hagel did not rise to the bait, which only seemed to make McCain madder.

My view of the Iraq surge?

Tactical success.

Strategic failure.

Which yields an answer of yes (and yes, I know that the surge per se was not the only thing that contributed to a stabilization at the time). And no to McCain's seemingly simple but quite simplistic question.

I found Hagel's Iraq surge op-ed of the time a bit over-wrought -- "biggest blunder since Vietnam" (actually, that would be the invasion of Iraq itself) -- but not surprising from a former Vietnam War infantry sergeant worried about the impending loss of American lives. Which numbered, I believe, more than 1,200 dead American soldiers in the surge.

That served to ease our way out of Iraq without helicopters taking off from the embassy roof as happened in Saigon. But it failed in setting up an Iraqi polity not favorable to Iran, whose position in the region was greatly enhanced by the Iraq War.

Hagel got at this, to a degree, when he answered follow-up questions after stolidly avoiding McCain's badgering. But only to a degree.

Was "the butchers' bill" -- in the phrase of the famed British Admiral Nelson, who led the winning forces at Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars -- worth it?

In other words, was the cost of saving American prestige too high? And would there have been more or fewer Iraqi deaths if the surge had not occurred?

These are serious questions of state policy. Naturally, no one raised them directly during the six hour-long hearing conducted by a committee of what was once styled as the world's greatest deliberative body.

McCain and Hagel were once great compadres, joined by the shared experience of the Vietnam War. But they drifted apart after McCain's 2000 presidential campaign, which Hagel co-chaired, and after 9/11 gave license to an extremely expansive view of waging a war on terror.

McCain moved to the right, backing virtually the entirety of the Bush/Cheney administration's panoply of policies except the policy of torture-as-interrogation -- for reasons having to do with his own tragic experience as a Vietnam War POW as much as the effectiveness of torture -- and Hagel moved somewhat to the left. Much of the media focused not on McCain's rightward move but on Hagel's move leftward, ignoring the fact that Hagel is actually backed by a large array of former Republican national security leaders -- much more moderate though hardly peacenik former secretaries of defense and state and national security advisors -- who, unlike McCain, did not adopt the neoconservative course.

But it may be that the divergence between McCain and Hagel was always inherent in what were actually their own very different Vietnam War experiences. McCain was an airedale, an officer and a gentleman as a naval aviator who carried out his dangerous missions then returned to the aircraft carrier. Which, while not exactly a four-star hotel, is a vastly more pleasant place to be than the bush in which Hagel, a grunt as an enlisted man in the Army, frequently found himself at the end of his missions.

Hagel found neither glamour nor much glory humping a pack and a rifle through the jungle, a far more typical experience in war than McCain's.

So Hagel's lack of enthusiasm from the beginning for the great Iraq adventure is hardly surprising. Nor is Obama's, as a liberal intellectual who never wore the uniform.

Obama, as it turns out, is not opposed to all dumb wars, witness his escalation in Afghanistan, which I wrote here early on would prove to be a largely ineffective yet massive quagmire.

Of course, we can't be sure what Obama really thought about Afghanistan. He may have worried too much about looking soft. We do know that Vice President Joe Biden opposed the big escalation, aka counter-insurgency, in favor of a much more limited counter-terrorist program. We also know that Obama had his favorite general, Marine General James "Hoss" Cartwright, then vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put together a much less grandiose plan than the one put forward by then Defense Secretary Bob Gates and most of the reigning brass.

Cartwright then suffered a major backlash for going against the Pentagon team and found his candidacy to be chairman of the JCS essentially derailed by a not-quite sex scandal. Which was amusingly ironic, considering that it was General David Petraeus's plan which was adopted, and Petraeus of course went on to have his own all too real sex scandal as CIA director.

Like the vice president and the four-star Marine general, Chuck Hagel was a great skeptic of the Afghan surge, and stated in Thursday's hearing that he advised Obama against it. It was one of his better moments.

Hagel didn't seem prepared to deal with some very obvious questions, instead opting for a frequently dull sort of rope-a-dope. But I don't think anything happened to derail him, though new Texas Senator Ted Cruz, an excitable sort, certainly seemed to think so as he brandished some Al Jazeera footage that didn't say what he said it did.

Which gets at the other less than uplifting thing about the six hour-long hearing (which I did not watch in its entirety). The Senate committee was underwhelming as well, managing to avoid deep questions of policy -- what are our top priorities, especially given fiscal constraints, in a world in which military power has definite limits? what is an acceptable expenditure of American lives, and in which circumstances? -- in favor of the usual partisan ping-pong and transparent efforts by senators to nail down the likely next SecDef on home state spending projects.

The reality is we have tremendous reach around the world, but we don't have equivalent grasp. Which Hagel's testimony seemed to acknowledge, if not exactly articulate.

But in the Obama administration, the big think speechifying is generally left to the president himself. Who is bound and determined to have Chuck Hagel in his Cabinet.

Which is exactly where he will be, notwithstanding the fire and brimstone of anonymously funded attack ads, and the floods of rhetoric from political opponents.

Come hell or high water.

You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.

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