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When the Great Judgment Call Came, Hagel Handed Bush a Blank Check

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Hagel has, to his credit, grown even more skeptical about military adventurism abroad. He even went so far as to oppose Obama's troop surge in Afghanistan, saying, "I'm not sure we know what the hell we are doing in Afghanistan."

Of the Afghanistan intervention, which he will be charged with dialing down if he is confirmed as defense secretary, Hagel says: "We have lost our purpose, our objective. We are in a universe of unpredictables and uncontrollables."

That sort of talk unsettles neoconservatives, as did Hagel's assertion that he was a senator from Nebraska, not Israel. So the Hagel nomination will face a fight, ginned up by, among others, conservative commentator William Kristol, who believes that it will be possible to reunite and refocus disoriented congressional Republicans on battles to block Obama nominees.

When the neocons rally on one side, it can lead liberals (and even some progressives) to instinctually go to the other side. And that's happening with the Hagel nomination. To be sure, liberals will find Hagel pronouncements that are appealing, such as his assertion in his autobiography: "Not that I'm a pacifist, I'm a hard-edged realist, I understand the world as it is, but war is a terrible thing. There's no glory, only suffering," And a 2011 reflection on his own Vietnam service, in which Hagel said: "We sent home almost 16,000 body bags that year [1968]. And I always thought to myself, "If I get through this, if I have the opportunity to influence anyone, I owe it to those guys to never let this happen again to the country.'"

It is good that Hagel has gone out of his way to express support for gays and lesbians in the military, and that he has apologized for an old slur against an openly gay ambassador. And it is genuinely encouraging to think that the next secretary of defense might be a man who just a year and a half ago told the Financial Times: "The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated . So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down."

On balance, such policy statements may well make the case for confirming Hagel. Indeed, as former Massachusetts congressman (and possible interim Massachusetts Senator) Barney Frank, who once recommended against a Hagel nomination, says: "The question now is going to be Afghanistan and scaling back the military. In terms of the policy stuff, if he would be rejected [by the Senate], it would be a setback for those things."

Frank speaks for a lot of liberals in the Senate, and they will probably vote to confirm Hagel.

But that confirmation ought not come without some serious reflection on, and serious questioning of, his vote to hand George Bush and Dick Cheney that "blank check" for war with Iraq. When it came time for the great judgment call of the past decade, when he was required to move from words to deeds, Hagel got it wrong.

For an update on the Iraq quagmire, read Robert Dreyfuss's blog post from last week.

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John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Online Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated internationally, quoted in numerous books and mentioned in debates on the floor of Congress.

Nichols writes about politics (more...)

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