In interrogating Hagel, Sen. John McCain, a leading Iraq War hawk, treated the "surge" myth as one of those undeniable facts that only a crazy person would dispute. The Arizona Republican demanded a yes-or-no answer from Hagel on whether he was "wrong" when he opposed the "surge" in 2007, assuming apparently that the only possible answer was to admit error.
On this point, Hagel actually stood his ground, noting that the question was too complex for a yes-or-no answer.
"I actually would like an answer, yes or no," McCain insisted.
"Well, I'm not going to give you a yes or no," Hagel replied, noting that other key factors in the gradual decline in Iraqi violence had predated the "surge," such as the so-called Sunni Awakening against al-Qaeda extremists, and that history should be the judge of the overall value of the "surge." Hagel also referred to the Iraq War as a war of "choice."
The answer only made McCain angrier. "I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you're on the wrong side of it," McCain fumed. "And your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether I vote for your confirmation or not."
McCain is surely not alone in demanding that everyone genuflect before the myth of the "successful surge." The U.S. mainstream news media, which was famously wrong in accepting President Bush's false claims about Iraq's WMD as a justification for war, also has pushed the "surge" myth as some undeniable fact.
Most notably, prominent TV interviewers, such as CBS's Katie Couric and ABC's George Stephanopoulos, hectored Sen. Barack Obama during Campaign 2008 to admit that he was wrong in opposing the "surge" and that his Republican opponent, McCain, was right in advocating it.
Like Hagel, Obama initially responded by saying that the question was far more complex than the U.S. news media was making it, but he eventually concluded that discretion was the better part of valor and confessed to Fox News' Bill O'Reilly that the surge "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams."
Obama's surrender may have been a smart tactical maneuver to neutralize the "surge" issue in Campaign 2008 but it only hardened the erroneous conventional wisdom. The still-influential neocons grew bolder in treating the "surge" myth as a giant fig leaf that covered their nakedness on the Iraq War disaster. [See Consortiumnews.com's "The Iraq War 'Surge' Myth Returns."]
Risks from False Certainty
The "surge" myth also had the consequence of elevating two of its architects, Gen. David Petraeus and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, into the Washington pantheon of military geniuses. As a result, President Obama kept both of them on in his first term and they collaborated to mouse-trap him into a similar "surge" in Afghanistan in 2009, a decision that Obama reportedly came to regret almost immediately.
Ironically, too, Obama's acceptance of the Iraq "surge" myth has now come back to bite his current nominee for Defense Secretary. But the larger problem is Official Washington's continuing hostility toward reality and toward people who speak inconvenient truth to power.
There is something extraordinarily dangerous about the most powerful nation on earth being driven by a set of fantasies, several of which were expressed angrily by their adherents in the Senate Armed Services Committee's hearing on Chuck Hagel.
And the risks are not just inside the government. They stretch to the U.S. news media, which -- even after the Iraq and Afghan debacles -- prefers to march in lock step with the prevailing group think, knowing that even when the group think proves disastrously wrong, there will be no accountability because the group itself is too powerful.
Rather it is for the rare independent-minded person who dares challenge the conventional wisdom -- regardless of the person's record for accuracy -- who must be singled out for punishment. There must be discipline in compelling free thinkers to abide by the dominant orthodoxies no matter how misguided they are.
That was the real lesson from the spectacle of Chuck Hagel's inquisition, that anyone who deviates from the group think must be disqualified from holding office in the U.S. government or -- for that matter -- any position of influence inside Official Washington. In this up-is-down world, there is no penalty for supporting the invasion of Iraq, only for criticizing the invasion of Iraq.