If President Obama's second term includes decision making as bold and intelligent as his nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense, his presidency might finally fulfill the promise of audacity and change that rallied so many to his campaign five years ago. In fact, the more ridiculous the claims being made by Hagel's critics become, the more the real reasons they don't want him -- and the wisdom of the choice -- come into stark relief.
The latest canard is about Hagel's supposed "temperament." The charge was made this past Sunday by Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, appearing on ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos. "I think another thing, George, that's going to come up is just his overall temperament," said Corker, "and is he suited to run a department or a big agency or a big entity like the Pentagon?" Given that this was a new one, Stephanopoulos asked, slightly incredulously, "Do you have questions about his temperament?" Corker replied, "I think there are numbers of staffers who are coming forth now just talking about the way he has dealt with them."
Ah yes, his temperament. It's a modern-day male version of the old dig that used to be directed at women, that they might be "PMSing" and therefore shouldn't be put too close to big boy military equipment. It's also worth pointing out that this line of attack is coming from a party that thoroughly approved of that shrinking violet of a Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. It's further worth noting that the opposition to Hagel is being led partly by Senator John McCain, the same guy who thought it prudent to potentially put Sarah Palin second in line to the presidency -- and whose own "temperament" has often been called into question.
But if Hagel's temperament is somehow relevant, it puts me in mind of the quote by Lincoln who, when approached by some of Grant's critics about the general's drinking, is supposed to have said: "Let me know what brand of whiskey Grant uses. For if it makes fighting generals like Grant, I should like to get some of it for distribution."
In response to Corker's charge, Politico's Playbook quoted an email from a senior administration official: "This line of attack is a new low. By contrast, Sen. Hagel intends to take the high road in the confirmation process as he defends his strong record." Well, it's certainly a contemptible charge, but whether it's a new low is debatable. There's already been plenty of competition for that title.
Now, I'm not saying Chuck Hagel is perfect or that I agree with every position he's ever taken, but leadership isn't about conforming to a checklist. Hagel is being nominated for a particular job, and for that job, he has a strong record. And this is exactly why his critics are grasping for straws -- because they don't want to discuss that record, nor what this debate is really about: the Iraq War.
Yes, then-Senator Hagel voted for the resolution to authorize the war. But even before the vote, he expressed more reservations than most of his colleagues. "You can take the country into a war pretty fast," he said in 2002, "but you can't get us out as quickly, and the public needs to know what the risks are." In his 2008 book America: Our Next Chapter he writes that he voted to authorize military force only as a last option, but the Bush administration had not tried to "exhaust all diplomatic efforts," and that "it all comes down to the fact that we were asked to vote on a resolution based on half truths, untruths, and wishful thinking."
And after the war began, he became one of the administration's most vocal critics. Among his statements over the course of the war:
That Iraq was "a hopeless, winless situation."
That Iraq was "an absolute replay of Vietnam."
That "Iraq is not going to turn out the way that we were promised it was."
That the Iraqi people "want the United States out of Iraq."
That the Iraq War was "ill-conceived" and "poorly prosecuted."
As I wrote back in 2006, criticisms like these were much stronger than what most Democrats were saying at the time. And Hagel was right. We often bemoan the fact that those in Washington who get it wrong never seem to be held accountable, and those who get it right (even if not right away) always seem to be marginalized. Well, this nomination is how the system should -- but seldom does -- work. That's why this nomination, even though Hagel is a Republican, shouldn't be looked at as another attempt by President Obama to curry favor with the opposition. It's the best kind of decision -- one made not to placate some interest group, but, rather, in the interest of the country. As Senator Jack Reed said of the nomination on Sunday, "Chuck has the wherewithal and the ability to speak truth to power. He's demonstrated that throughout his entire career. That is a value that is extraordinarily important to the president." And to the country.
"When I think of issues like Iraq," Hagel said in 2006, "of how we went into it -- no planning, no preparation, no sense of consequences, of where we were going, how we were going to get out, went in without enough men, no exit strategy, those kinds of things -- I'll speak out. I'll go against my party."
And that kind of thinking is all the more powerful coming from a man with two Purple Hearts -- and who still has shrapnel lodged in his chest as a reminder, not that he needs one, of what war is really like.
"Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction," the president said when announcing the nomination. "He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that's something we only do when it's absolutely necessary. 'My frame of reference,' he has said, is 'geared towards the guy at the bottom who's doing the fighting and the dying.'" That's why, in the lead up to the Iraq War, Hagel pointed out the fact that decisions were being made by those who hadn't "sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off." And for that he was called an "appeaser."
The president added that it was in the Senate where he came to admire Hagel's "courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind -- even if it wasn't popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom."
And if you doubt whether Hagel's views go against the conventional wisdom, at least in Washington, just witness the hysterical, desperate pushback to his nomination. This isn't about temperament, or abortion or gay rights (not that those aren't important issues). It's about the path U.S. foreign policy took at the beginning of the last decade, directed by the neocons. As the New York Times' Jim Rutenberg put it, "The campaign now being waged against Mr. Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense is in some ways a relitigation of that decade-old dispute."
He's right -- to an extent. Where I think he's off is that this isn't a relitigation -- because the disaster that was, and is, the Iraq War was never actually litigated in the first place. We've never really had that debate. Those who conceived it (badly) and executed it (even more badly) were never held accountable. And they are now the ones trying to torpedo the very idea that someone who is thoughtful and careful about sending our soldiers to die might actually have a role in that decision.
Rutenberg writes that this debate is "a dramatic return to the public stage by the neoconservatives whose worldview remains a powerful undercurrent in the Republican Party." That is some undercurrent. If it's below the surface, then what is the top current?
It's not like Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham are back-benchers. The latter called Hagel's nomination an "in-your-face nomination" and an "incredibly controversial choice." Sadly, in today's Washington the idea that someone who is skeptical and cautious about the consequences of U.S. military intervention should lead the Pentagon is indeed "incredibly controversial." Turning around conventional wisdom in Washington is no small endeavor, which is why this nomination is so important.
A week later, with an almost comical lack of self-awareness, Senator Graham contrasted Hagel's decision making with that of Graham's BFF, Senator McCain. "I think [Hagel] was very haunted by Vietnam," Graham said, unlike McCain who "doesn't look at every conflict through the eyes of his Vietnam experience -- you know, 'We shouldn't have been there, it went on too long, we didn't have a plan.'" Yes, thank God we left that kind of thinking back in Vietnam -- no instances of it since then, right?
The relationship between Hagel and McCain goes back a long time. McCain was one of Hagel's earliest supporters and Hagel was one of the few who jumped on the "Straight Talk Express," back when McCain was taking on what he called "agents of intolerance" in the Republican Party. Unlike McCain, Hagel managed to stay on the Straight Talk Express. And now McCain is grasping at straws over Hagel's skepticism about success of the surge strategy in Iraq, something McCain finds "bizarre." Back when it was being considered, Hagel said "This is a Ping-Pong game with American lives," and that "we better be damn sure we know what we're doing, all of us, before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder."
Since then it's become accepted gospel in Washington that the surge was successful. Accepted gospel that is, once again, wrong. Doug Ollivant was an army planning officer in Iraq who was one of those who actually implemented the surge. "The surge really didn't work, per se," Ollivant, now with the New America Foundation, says, adding, "Fundamentally, it was the Iraqis trying to find a solution, and they did."A study by U.S. Special Forces officer Maj. Joshua Thiel came to the same conclusion. Thiel looked at where and when the additional surge troops were deployed and compared that to subsequent drops in violence. As Foreign Policy's Robert Haddick put it,
Thiel concluded that there was no significant correlation between the arrival of U.S. reinforcements and subsequent changes in the level of violence in Iraq's provinces... the connection between surge troops and the change in the level of incidents seems entirely random.
Another straw being grasped at by McCain is the question, "Why would [Hagel] oppose calling the Iranian revolutionary guard a terrorist organization?"
He's referring to the fact that Hagel didn't sign a letter to the European Union designating Hezbollah a terror group. Hagel's defense was that he "didn't sign on to certain resolutions and letters because they were counter-productive and didn't solve a problem." In other words, Hagel refused to posture. A cardinal sin in Washington. Just as he also said that use of reductivist buzzwords and phrases like "cut and run" cheapen the debate and debase the seriousness of war. How refreshing. And it points to the fact that not only do we need better military policy, we also need a more intelligent way of talking about that policy as a means of making it better.
But the lowest point his critics have gone to is to insinuate, or even claim outright, that Hagel is an anti-Semite. That slanderous charge is being led by Elliott Abrams. He's now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, but you might remember him as the man convicted in 1991 of two counts of withholding information from Congress (he was pardoned by outgoing President George H.W. Bush). He claims that Hagel "seems to have some kind of problem with Jews," and, in the Weekly Standard, offers as evidence "the testimony of the Jewish community that knew him best is most useful: Nebraskans. And the record seems unchallenged: Nebraskan Jewish activists and officials have said he was hostile, and none -- including Obama supporters and Democratic party activists -- have come forward to counter that allegation."
Actually, it has been challenged -- by, among others, activist Gary Javitch, who, according to the Forward is "considered by locals to be an expert on the local Jewish political scene." Though Javitch is no fan of Hagel, when asked by the Forward if he though Hagel was biased against Jews, he said "no." He also said that "to make such an accusation you need to be very careful," and that Hagel "never demonstrated anything like that in all the meetings I had with him."
What's amazing is that the Council on Foreign Relations would allow its credibility to be used to advance an accusation like this. In response, a CFR official told Al-Monitor's Laura Rozen that the views of their experts are "theirs only" and that "the Council on Foreign Relations takes no institutional position on matters of policy." But this isn't policy, it's character assassination. Does the Council take no official position on that? As the Daily Beast's Ali Gharib writes:
Abrams should be challenged by media and by his fellow scholars in the think tank world to find any member in good standing of the Nebraska Jewish community who will say on the record that they consider their former Senator an anti-Semite. Failing that, Abrams should issue a public apology to Hagel for making this scurrilous charge.
Of course, the reason the opposition to Hagel is so desperate and so focused on side-issues or made-up charges is because they don't want a debate that would shine a spotlight on their spectacular and disastrous failure in Iraq. "This is the neocons' worst nightmare," says Richard Armitage, who was Deputy Secretary of State under Colin Powell, "because you've got a combat soldier, successful businessman and senator who actually thinks there may be other ways to resolve some questions other than force."
A nightmare for some but a welcome change for the country. This week, HuffPost is launching a new series focusing on President Obama's second term called "The Road Forward: Obama's Second Term Challenges."
In the first installment, Howard Fineman writes that "Obama is in an unusually strong position to deliver on the potential of his second term -- but only if he has the will and wherewithal to turn ballot-box victory into real-life results," and asks whether Obama "will be shrewd, persistent and tough enough to turn great promise into true greatness."
We'll see. But if the nomination of Chuck Hagel is any indication, the road forward is looking much better than what's behind us. Though the upcoming hearings on Hagel's nomination are unlikely to feature the real debate on Iraq that the country deserves, hopefully his tenure will indeed be the departure from the kind of thinking that got us into it that his critics so desperately fear.