"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."