The Maverick

The Hagel boom continues. Of course, regular observers of this space know that it started here, and here, but it is really beginning to take off now that Peggy Noonan has weighed in:

“Mr. Hagel has shown courage for a long time. He voted for the war resolution in 2002 but soon after began to question how it was being waged. This was before everyone did. He also stood against the war when that was a lonely place to be. Senate Democrats sat back and watched: If the war worked, they’d change the subject; and if it didn’t, they’d hang it on President Bush. Republicans did their version of inaction; they supported the president until he was unpopular, and then peeled off. This is almost not to be criticized. It’s what politicians do. But it’s not what Mr. Hagel did. He had guts.”

Mickey Kaus snarked that Hagel was merely jumping on a bandwagon that had already been rolling, but Noonan’s timeline is correct: Hagel was criticizing the war long before any on the other side of the aisle, aside from Russ Feingold, found their voices.

Hagel has seized the moment to dramatize, with his straight talk, what most Americans are now thinking and saying about this rotten, seemingly endless war. A most unpleasant term of approbation has been attached to his rising political fortunes: they’re calling him “the new McCain.” Now, the old McCain was bad enough, and still is, but one can’t help noticing that the old one’s stock is falling, along with his poll numbers, even as Hagel’s rise. There’s only room for one “maverick Republican” in the media’s collective consciousness, and in the public mind: aside from that, however, it’s all about the war.

McCain is falling in the polls, and his former supporters among independent voters are falling away, entirely due to his ultra-hawkish stance on the war. If McCain had his way, we’d have 100,000 more troops in Iraq – and we’d already be halfway to Tehran. He’s always been a more-interventionist-than-thou kinda guy, but his media fan club pretended not to notice this back in his glory days because he was such good copy. However, go back through the history of U.S. interventions in the recent past, and check his stance: from Kosovo to Iraq, his solution to each and every foreign policy crisis has been “more boots on the ground.” When it comes to Iran, and even Russia, McCain’s default position is invariably belligerent. A more determined enemy of peace does not exist in the U.S. Senate, or in American politics.

McCain and Hagel, apart from their diametrically opposed stances on the war, have much in common. Both are Vietnam war veterans, much decorated, and are gruffly direct and unvarnished in their speech and mannerisms. The two are good friends, and Hagel supported McCain over Bush in the 2000 presidential primaries.Yet they seem to have taken away from their military experiences very different conceptions of America’s role in the world.

McCain exudes the barking belligerence of a bully who goes ballistic with ease. There is about him the aura of a man who is continually engaged in a balancing act between the overwhelming demands of his enormous ego and a deep well of anger that suddenly turns his face crimson with rage. One wonders: is that steam coming out his ears?

The Senator from Nebraska, on the other hand, while emanating a gruff assurance, lacks the fanatic certainty of his Senate colleague, and, instead, seems genuinely baffled by American policy in Iraq. Rather than projecting his ego, he puts it aside, and, in place of pushing some preordained agenda, bluntly asks the questions that are on everyone’s mind. In doing so, avers Noonan, Hagel has injected a fresh note into the congressional debate over the war:

“Mr. Hagel said the most serious thing that has been said in Congress in a long time. This is what we’re here for. This is why we’re here, to decide, to think it through and take a stand, and if we can’t do that, why don’t we just leave and give someone else a chance?”

In Imperial America, the Senate is increasingly irrelevant, at least when it comes to foreign policy, and yet this effort to bring to the Senate floor and pass a resolution criticizing our Iraq policy could be the beginning of a new and very welcome trend. The out of control Presidency of George W. Bush has arrogated to itself more power than any Roman emperor – including Nero and Caligula – ever dreamed of. This is a dangerous “weapon of mass destruction” that needs to be defused for the peace of the world, as well as Americans’ well-being and safety. What Hagel is saying is that we’re still a republic, in spite of everything, and it’s not too late to change a course set for empire.

On the question of Hagel’s presidential prospects, the Senator has been saying that he’ll make a statement soon. There is also some intriguing news that he might be considering a third party run. An Iowa poll already has him one point below Mitt Romney, the establishment conservative candidate.

With his military background, red-state persona, and rock-ribbed conservatism, Hagel’s antiwar stance is all the more credible and palatable. Good old David Boaz, over at the Cato Institute’s blog, says all too many conservatives are still in thrall to big-government Bushism:

“But I’ll predict that over, say, the next 12 months leading up to the Iowa caucuses, Hagel is going to look increasingly wise and prescient to Republican voters. And as they come to discover that he’s a commonsense Midwestern conservative who opposed many of the Bush administration’s worst ideas, he’s going to look more attractive.”

The Republican revolt in the House and Senate is gathering strength, and the war is being increasingly questioned in conservative circles. Back in the day, when neocon enforcer David Frum smeared right-wing opponents of the war as “Unpatriotic Conservatives,” the idea was to end all discussion of the issue on the right. “We turn our backs on you,” announced Frum, but he and his fellow neocons can’t turn their backs on their responsibility for the disaster that has befallen the U.S. in Iraq. (Not to mention the catastrophe that has been visited on the GOP.) Their day of reckoning is coming, perhaps, in the form of an antiwar Republican presidential candidate with a credible shot at the nomination and an excellent chance of winning the general election.

The problem for Hagel’s presidential prospects is that he has very little cash on hand: rumors of his retirement from the Senate were due, in part, to the paucity of money raised for his reelection campaign. It will take a real grassroots movement to give him the momentum he needs to mount a serious effort. Whether or not he announces, what this episode reveals, so far, is that there is a tremendous vacuum where American leadership ought to be. The question is whether the American people will fill it with a man of substance, like Hagel, or a pretty face, like Obama or Edwards. Can authenticity win out over hype?

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].