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.