Give Us Chuck Hagel for Christmas

My dad called me and left a message the other day, having just heard that former Senator Chuck Hagel was being considered for Secretary of Defense. “You have a connection to him, no?” he asked, before hanging up.

A connection, yes — a very brief and limited, but very memorable one, at least from my end. My father was remembering the time I had sat in Hagel’s senate office on Capitol Hill and interviewed him for a 2007 profile I was writing for The American Conservative. The lengthy piece (4,000 words!) ended up on the cover under the headline “Hagel’s Dilemma. The “dilemma” was he no longer fit in with his party on one single issue: the Iraq War. That’s why the contrarian conservative magazine liked Hagel, and wanted to stimulate interest in him before a possible 2008 run for president.

Well, he did not run for president, but that hour or so interview had left quite an impression on me. After 18 years of dealing with enough hot air politicians to float the Graf Zeppelin, Hagel came on with the authenticity and frankness of a cold winter blast. If you were lulled to sleep by the BS before, Chuck Hagel’s confident candor woke you up with a start.

“Would I vote for (Iraq) today? No I wouldn’t …We went into Iraq based on flawed judgment, based on dishonest motives, based on flawed intelligence, and we have a very, very big problem today,” he told me in early 2007, just about the time “Surge Mania” had taken over the Washington defense world — and Congress.

“I laid out all of my reservations about the resolution (to go to war). In the end, I voted for it because I was told by the administration that the president would not use military force unless all diplomatic options were exercised—they were not.”

Hagel was flayed by Republican critics who said, among other sins, Hagel was too openly critical of his own party and of Republican President George W. Bush. They called him an “appeaser” and a “megalomaniac.” Bill Kristol said Hagel’s arguments against the prolonged occupation of foreign lands was “laughably weak.”

Now a Democratic President is reportedly mulling him for defense secretary and the same Republican automatons and neoconservative harpies are pulling no punches to thwart it. They complain about his allegedly insufficient support of Israel (massaged, cajoled and translated for full-effect into charges of anti-Semitism), driven in part by his unwillingness to impose harsh economic sanctions or use of force against Iran.  He also voted against designating Hezbollah a terrorist organization, and has encouraged open relations with Hamas in hopes of reanimating the corpse of the Middle East pace process.

Furthermore, Hagel’s flagrant disdain for the runaway MIC (military industrial complex), preemptive war, and senseless foreign occupation is such an aberration to the Washington establishment that when the bunker busters in Congress, American Israel supporters and rightwing 101st Keyboard Brigade heard he might be nominated, their attack was so immediate and vicious it’ll likely serve as a model for smear efficiency for years to come. If the U.S. Army had deployed these superlative tactics in say, Afghanistan, they might have actually won the so-called “war of perception” over the Taliban 10 years ago. Too bad most of Hagel’s critics prefer calling the shots from over here, rather than putting their rear-ends in harm’s way over there.

The War Against Hagel has hardly been decisive, however, at least as we near the end of the year, leaving some space for his supporters to mount a proper defense, which of this writing, is increasingly vigorous. There seems to be a common theme to every blog post and op-ed penned for his purpose: the man is a welcome independent thinker in the Era of the Borg — and he’s no phony, else he would have safely buzzed off with the rest of the political hive long ago. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, usually quite scornful of Realist foreign policy arguments — especially concerning Iran — said Thursday he worries about rightwing developments in Israel even more than Hagel’s purportedly soft approach on Iran, and suggested quite baldy that Hagel’s independence would be a help not a hindrance where it counts:

What we need are American officials who will speak with disconcerting bluntness to Israel about the choices it is making…Maybe the time has come to redefine the term “pro-Israel” to include, in addition to providing support against Iran (a noble cause); help with the Iron Dome system (also a noble cause); and support to maintain Israel’s qualitative military edge (ditto), the straightest of straight talk about Israel’s self-destructive policies on the West Bank. Maybe Hagel, who is not bound to old models, could be useful in this regard.

Many of us see Hagel’s impact in much broader terms than just the Israel question.  We’ve had too many armchair generals and dutiful yes men at the levers of power, cleaving to an unsustainable post-9/11 orthodoxy that has militarized our foreign policy and politicized our military. The neoconservatism of the Bush years has bled literally into the so-called humanitarian interventionism of the Obama era, and for the first time, there is an opportunity to check that with the presence of a known Realist who, as Harvard’s Stephen Walt says, is “opposed to squandering U.S. power, prestige, and wealth on misbegotten crusades,” and is immune to the “threat inflation” both sides routinely engage in to justify lining the pockets of the defense industry.  After nearly 12 years of constant war, Hagel’s references to Iraq and Afghanistan as a meat grinder to which we’ve wastefully sent too many of our own children, and his belief that he is the “the real conservative” because he actually calls for restraint, should be a refreshing prospect, and not feared by Americans conditioned to accept there is a military solution for every problem.

“In a town dominated by often-unexamined conventional wisdom, the appointment of Hagel to DoD would be a welcome relief,” wrote Michael Cohen for The Guardian last week. Reached on the phone, Cohen told me that Hagel would be a “transformational pick,” but acknowledged that the challenges loom large for a non-conformist now squared against not only members of his own party, but neoconservatives wielding their “long knives,” and the pro-war wing of the Democratic establishment, too. “Look, he is not one of them,” Cohen said, “he’s not a neoconservative nor a liberal hawk, he thinks there should be limits on American power.”

Although President Obama has, so far, not said a word about Hagel, the former senator who quietly spent the last four years chairing the moderate Atlantic Council, is enjoying an enthusiastic defense from myriad commentators across the mainstream, including Andrew Sullivan, Steve Clemons, Peter Beinart — even Jim Judis at The New Republic. Several ambassadors — including Bush-era Nick Burns and Ryan Crocker and three Israel representatives — signed on to a letter encouraging his nomination.

Meanwhile, The National Journal and The Washington Post have published biographical sketches emphasizing Hagel’s Vietnam War record and its impact on his post-war career and personal philosophy (this hardly makes up, however, for the Post’s incoherent broadside published by its editorial page on Dec. 19). And of course, The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison and Scott McConnell, not to mention our own Justin Raimondo, are astutely swatting away the haters at every turn of this increasingly torrid offensive.

Michele Flournoy
Michele Flournoy

But while many of us here at Antiwar would like a Hagel nomination for Christmas, the biggest concern (aside from his Swift Boating) is that we might find Michele Flournoy under the tree instead. For those who never heard of her, she founded the Center for a New American Security in 2007 in anticipation of a new Democratic White House. The think tank was designed to promote a more muscular Democratic military policy, which meant its top people supported Hillary Clinton for president as well as the U.S. counterinsurgency in Iraq, and then Afghanistan, known then as the Petraeus Doctrine. Once Obama won, it became the go-to policy shop for the White House and a revolving door to the Pentagon and State Department for its senior fellows. Flournoy went on to take Doug Feith’s position as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, the No. 3 job at the Pentagon. What she actually did in the fabled “E-Ring” to advance policy or to help extricate the military from an increasingly disastrous war in Afghanistan, is anyone’s guess. But the “hot policy wonk” and top COINdinista apparently made all the right friends and greased all the right skids, and is now the favored pick by the neocons, who see a kindred soul where Hagel is just heartburn ready to happen.

So buttressed is Flournoy by the Washington elite that people like Paul Wolfowitz, who in all reality should be ignored completely for his role in one of the worst war blunders in American history, are rolling out to defend her (in Wolfowitz’s case, maybe he should have cooled his wheels at home). After admitting he’s “not deeply familiar with Michele Flournoy’s record at the Defense Department or with her overall qualifications to be Secretary of Defense,” he says the fact 3,500 Afghan security forces have died this year (compared to 307 Americans) is proof enough she knows what she is doing. I say it’s proof enough that nothing has really changed since the Bush administration, except there are more troops in Afghanistan now (about 68,000) and the U.S. casualty count was much lower then —- 117 in 2007 to be exact.

When liberal flak Eleanor Clift wrote about the prospects of the “first female defense secretary” back in November, all she could muster in her favor was Flournoy’s Oxford pedigree, a stint in the lackluster Clinton Pentagon policy shop and quotes like these from former colleagues: “she has spent a great deal of time thinking how to deploy our military instruments economically and effectively.” Glad she was thinking about it before she left her post in February. Not much came out of if, however, if today’s accounts of continuing bloat, waste and mission creep are any indication.

Frankly, one hears a lot about Flournoy the “team player” but very little about her vision, ideas or actual accomplishments. The fact is, “the team” has been on a losing streak in Afghanistan since Obama took office, while her think tank, of which she continues to serve on the board of directors, has reaped all the benefits and influence as a conduit between the Pentagon, Foggy Bottom, the White House and greedy defense industry. “She’s a safe pick, she will carry the water — if you pick Hagel it would be saying ‘I want to push the envelope a little bit on foreign policy,’” said Cohen, “pushing it in a more realist direction than we have in the past.”

Perhaps that is why so many of us here are excited about the prospect. There are some areas where Hagel and the readers on this page might diverge, particularly on domestic issues. He’s a solid pro-life social conservative. He voted for the Patriot Act (he later fought for broader constitutional safeguards, saying he took an oath to protect the constitution, not “an oath of office to my party or my president”). We don’t know yet where he would stand on the controversial detention provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). We have no idea whether he would stanch the flow of U.S. personnel and weapons into Africa or how he would deal with a newly inherited drone war. As for the Pentagon labyrinth itself, as University of Texas professor (and expert COIN critic) Celeste Ward Gventer tells me, “the problems are systemic and largely exceed the decision or personality of one man, even if he is at the apex.”

Still, if a Flournoy pick would signal an endorsement of the status quo, a Hagel nod would serve to challenge it.  This inclination to question policy is quite attractive to observers like us who are tired of living in a fake candy cane marshmallow bubble world when it comes to foreign policy and national security. As a senator, Hagel often addressed these issues realistically, with no regard to how it might hurt his chances for a presidential nomination, which turned out to be short-lived as a result (quite sad, considering the parade of ham-n-egger Republicans who ended up running, and losing, in the last two elections).

Even more so, when I interviewed Hagel and his acquaintances for that 2007 story, a picture emerged of a man whose Vietnam experience (he brought home two purple hearts, a broiled face, ruptured eardrums and shrapnel in the chest from combat there) had entirely shaped his political and ethical values. As he told Charlene Berens, who wrote his 2006 biography Chuck Hagel: Moving Forward, his first thought when he was evacuated from the field was, “if I ever get out, and if I can ever influence anything, I will do all I can to prevent war.”

As the number-two guy at the Veterans Administration in the early 1980s Hagel carved out a reputation as a veterans’ advocate. He pushed back against a movement to oppose the design for the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. He didn’t much like being backed into a corner, and supported Maya Lin’s controversial renderings. He was on hand for The Wall’s 1982 unveiling. Today it formidably stands as one of Washington’s starkest reminders of folly and regret. It is brutal in its message, yet in its way the most reverent of all the memorials. Like Hagel himself, The Wall forces us to think about Vietnam, not just whistle past it on the way to the more triumphant World War II memorial.

Clearly, while some have tried to whitewash Vietnam  — or in the case of former Gen. David Petraeus & Co., take all the wrong lessons from it — Hagel continues to use that awful experience as a touchtone for restraint. It has grounded him. His impulse to challenge war policy — despite the political peril — would serve us all. When I called Berens to talk to her about Hagel she said, “I think on a very personal level, he feels responsible for putting anyone else in that kind of situation. He seemed to me pretty much what he appears to be, I didn’t sense much artifice there.”

I didn’t either, when I met Hagel. “What you see is what you get” couldn’t be a plainer description of Hagel as a politician and in this case, that’s a good thing. He was affable and reflective, confident and not easily ruffled.

No doubt all of these things — particularly the charges against Hagel on Israel — might ultimately tank his chances for the job, but there is nothing lost in hoping. So, Mr. Obama, ignore the threats and the spiteful accusations and please give us Chuck Hagel for Christmas. We can’t promise to be good, but we can guarantee it’ll shake things up.

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Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.