02/18/2013 09:03 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2013

Beneath Hagel's Confirmation Hearings

Chuck Hagel's nomination as secretary of defense brought two old issues to the forefront -- the Iraq war and U.S.-Israeli relations. Beneath the ankle biting lies a significant competition over U.S. grand strategy.

Years ago, during the Reagan administration, I first heard an argument to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein. Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz came to speak to a group of graybeards who had been formulating strategy in the Pentagon during World War II and continued through the Cold War. Wolfowitz looked quite young against the backdrop of old timers. He was smart, articulate, and quite likeable. His argument went something like this.

There will be no peace in the Middle East as long as there is a militarily powerful Arab state, because the existence of a militarily powerful Arab state emboldens the lesser Arab states in their resistance to what they see as Jewish occupation of Arab Palestine. Iraq is that militarily powerful Arab state. Therefore, we should overthrow Saddam Hussein and replace his government with a secular democracy that will develop normal relations with Israel. Iraq will prosper and serve as the "shining example on the hill" for other Arab states. Peace and prosperity will follow.

I would later come to hear this called the neocon argument. (An apology is in order. Paul Wolfowitz just happens to be a convenient reference point. He was one of a cohort of like-minded hardliners that moved up the ladder together. The president needs alternative courses of action, and the president and Congress bear responsibility for the decisions made, not the advisor.)

The graybeards listened attentively and then told Wolfowitz why it was a bad idea. It would destabilize the region; remove Iraq as a balance against Iran; lead to sectarian violence between Sunni, Shia, and Kurd; and require installation of a new strongman or a long, costly occupation to hold the country together. The matter seemed to be put to rest.

Walking down the hall after the meeting, I asked my mentor why Iraq and why now. He pointed out the importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict and went on to add that this approach hypothetically would resolve the conflict without Israel having to make any concessions to Palestinians. As for why now, he recalled the frustrations of hardliners through 12 years of détente under Nixon, Ford, and Carter and their belief that Reagan's election provided a great opportunity. Reagan, known for his bellicose rhetoric and massive arms buildup, was actually quite cautious in the use of force. His only use of offensive ground force in eight years was the invasion of the tiny island of Grenada.

The issue came up again in 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and this time with greater urgency. Wolfowitz, now an undersecretary of defense, made his argument again. President Bush and JCS Chairman Powell weighed the options and decided to return Kuwait's sovereignty and then contain Iraq. The objective was within easy reach, but Bush, Powell, and many other professionals rejected the neocon argument for the same reasons I heard during Reagan's tenure. Again, I thought the matter settled, this time more decisively.

Out of office during the Clinton administration, Wolfowitz openly criticized Bush's decision to not overthrow Saddam. But he would return to office in the Bush 43 administration, this time as deputy secretary, number two in the Pentagon.

The events of 9/11 led quickly to operations in Afghanistan against the perpetrators, al Qaeda, and their enablers, the Taliban. Plans for the overthrow of Saddam quickly followed. Washington was all abuzz over the decision to invade Iraq. I kept waiting to hear the neocon argument again. I never heard it, but it's possible that I just missed it. Several other arguments surfaced, e.g., linkage to 9/11, liberation on humanitarian grounds, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction. The administration settled on the threat posed by Iraq's WMD program. UN inspectors rejected the claim unequivocally ( e.g., Hans Blix and former marine Scott Ritter).

The terms "preemptive war" and "preventive war" have specific meaning in international law, law that the U.S. has agreed to and in many cases initiated.

Preemptive war rests on an imminent threat, with existing capability, troops on the border, and no other options available. No country has to wait for the enemy to strike before defending itself. Preemptive war is perfectly within international law.

Preventive war, in contrast, is initiated because it is believed that the balance of power is shifting and some day in the future the enemy will have the capability to successfully attack and that the attack is inevitable. It assumes that diplomacy, economic sticks and carrots, and deterrence won't be effective. Historically, preventive war is seen as a rationale for naked aggression and is against the Just War tradition and international law.

There's nothing new about preventive war. Eisenhower was presented with the option to attack the Soviet Union and China before they acquired the atomic bomb. Eisenhower unequivocally rejected preventive war by name.

Notables like Brent Scowcroft, national security advisor to Ford and the elder Bush, publicly argued against the invasion citing the same reasons I heard during the Reagan and Bush 41 administrations. Given the vigorous debate, I estimated the likelihood of invasion to be about 70 percent against. I was wrong. But the graybeards' predictions were spot on.

Congress instructed the Director of Central Intelligence to produce the Intelligence Community's estimate of Iraq's WMB programs. The unclassified document, "Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs" (October 2002), found no imminent threat. It estimated that a useable capability could be four to six years away. That could be shortened to perhaps one year if Iraq was able to acquire the weapon-grade fissile material it lacked. Neither estimate met the imminence criteria for preemptive war.

As deputy secretary of defense, Wolfowitz directed the Joint Staff to develop plans to overthrow seven regimes in five years -- Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan. It was premised on the idea that the demise of the Soviet Union meant that the U.S. could use military force with impunity, and should, before a new great power competitor emerged.

In Bush's second term, Stephen Hadley replaced Condoleezza Rice as national security advisor. In what I believe was his first official public appearance, I heard him present the by now familiar neocon argument as the president's reason for overthrowing Saddam.

And there lies the rub. Controversy over Hagel's nomination is a contest between traditionalist Republicans, like Eisenhower and Powell, who were cautious in the use of force, and hardliner Republicans, many of whom were former hawkish, liberal Democrats, but others who are longtime Republicans like John McCain and Lindsey Graham. They disagree strongly over a number of issues, for example:

  • Unequivocal support for the policies of the Israeli government, regardless of which party is in power, and whether or not those policies align with U.S. interests versus the U.S. exerting diplomatic and economic pressure on the Israeli government in pursuit of U.S. interests.
  • Deterrence doesn't work, military force and preventive war is justified versus reliance of the many levers of U.S. power, including deterrence, diplomacy, economic sticks and carrots, and reserving war as a last resort.
  • Expenditures on military forces must be maintained or increased versus defense budgets being subject to significant reductions.

My choice would be to subject these issues to public debate rather than what has taken place during the confirmation hearings. The country deserves better.