Hagel: Getting Drummed Out of the Party
Senator Hagel has always been a rock solid conservative, but his increasingly harsh criticism of Bush's war in Iraq is causing him to be pushed off the bus. Hagel has been outspoken about the mistakes he sees in Bush's foreign policy, but until recently has been a reliable vote backing the administration's and Republican policy even when he originally had voiced opposition or criticism. In January this year, I noted that Newsweek reported that the long term friendship between Hagel and McCain was beginning to unravel. McCain and Hagel friendship started because they were Republican Senators shaped by the fact that they both actually served in the military and experienced war. Yet, as McCain more tightly clings to Bush's war in his run for President, Hagel has only become more vocal in his criticism and has even opined that impeachment might be the only answer for making Bush be accountable to the nation.
In a recent piece in TNR, John Judis explores the path that Hagel has traveled in the past few years. When Chuck Hagel went into the Vietnam War, he thought he was doing his patriotic duty to fight in the war. Chuck's brother, Tom, fought along side Chuck, but came home feeling guilty about what he did in the war. But not Chuck. Even after the war, he was convinced the Vietnam War was justified.
Despite his conservative credentials and his strong support for the Vietnam War, he has never bought into either the neoconservative or John Birch vision of how America should act in the world.
Hagel's worldview was almost entirely self-taught--in speeches, he still mispronounces George Kennan's last name "Keenan"--but it was not the worldview of a typical Nebraskan. The state had been a center of isolationist sentiment before each world war. Its farmers were interested in foreign trade but not really in foreign policy. Yet Hagel was a committed internationalist who looked upon the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization, and nato as essential ingredients of U.S. foreign policy. "Borderless challenges will require borderless solutions," he declared in his first major foreign policy address in September 1998. But his internationalism was tempered by realism about what the United States could accomplish overseas. He was wary of attempts to use American power to create democracy. Like former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, who would become a friend and adviser, Hagel thought the United States should seek stability, security, and prosperity. He later called his outlook "principled realism."
And he didn't believe that soldiers should be sent to war unless it was necessary and didn't like people pushing war when they never served and had no idea of what it was like.
Then came the Iraq war. At first Hagel played the good soldier and voted to give Bush authorization to attack Saddam in 2002 although he says that he believed Powell and Bush when they reassured him that this would only be needed if the diplomatic approach didn't work. Many times during the next few years, although he would question the administration approach to reporters, he still backed Bush's right to dictate his foreign policy. Nevertheless, as the war drug on, Hagel started to revisit his own understanding of that earlier war in which he had fought.
Tom Hagel says his brother's reevaluation of Vietnam began in earnest a few years later. "It was the run-up to the invasion of Iraq where you [began to] see all of this just flood out," he says. "Since that time, standing back, watching and talking to him, there were at least a few times a year, it was like watching someone growing increasingly obsessed and frustrated with what he sees going on around him and feels powerless to change it." According to Tom, during "the last year or two," as Chuck read more about the history of the war, his views on Vietnam changed dramatically. "I have never seen him change an opinion on anything in my life so quickly as he did after this information," Tom says. "It shocked me when he told me about it."
The first public inkling of Hagel's changed outlook would come in a profile of him in November 2004 by Washington Post reporter Robert Kaiser. Hagel described the learning process he was going through. "I read everything I could about Indochina, about the war, about the French, about Vietnam, about our policy, what got us there. ... And the more I read, the more I understood. ... I got a sense that there was just so much dishonesty in it. And it was chewing these kids up. ... So I started connecting all the deaths and all the suffering and the chaos and wounds. I started to sense a dishonesty about it all." Hagel now saw the war in Vietnam, like the war in Iraq, as a war of choice--one that had been built on an edifice of lies.
Once he realized his war had been based on lies, he started to apply the same reasoning to the war in which our country is trapped today. And he decided he could not go along anymore with an immoral war that was grinding up a new generation. Furthermore, he was becoming increasingly angry at Bush's actions - his scorning of the Baker-Hamilton recommendations and his justification for pouring in more troops into his war based on lies.
As Judis said, this epiphany has been hard on Chuck Hagel's political life. The neoconservatives now hate him and the Nebraska Republican Party is recruiting someone else to run against him for his Senate seat. Judis believes that Hagel's actions are not those of a politician because he is clearly committing political suicide.
Two months later, Hagel appears to have concluded that he has little chance as a Republican. When I asked him whether anything in particular had convinced him to consider running as an independent, he predictably said, "No," but he made clear that he had been stung by his party's revolt against him. "My loyalty is first to country, and I appreciate some in my party don't accept that," he said. Still, no one I talked to believes Hagel will actually run as an independent. Some people who know him think he is going to quit politics entirely, while others believe that he will be loath to turn his back on a challenge from an upstart like Bruning. One person who has worked with him questions whether Hagel has lost his moorings. "I just don't know what is going on in that guy's head," he says. "I can't tell if he is unusually smart or just lost it."
Yet what Hagel seems to have lost is not so much his sanity or his grasp of world politics--his recent floor speech opposing the Reid-Feingold bill, which would have entirely cut off war funding, was a model of sober intelligence--but rather the part of the political cerebellum that allows politicians to put career before conviction.
Chuck Hagel will continue to pay for his honesty, but I am grateful that he is putting his loyalty to his country today before his own future. Would more conservatives find the courage to reconsider their loyalties.