Grandstanding in former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s (R-Neb.) Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing, 74-year-old five-term Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) hammered President Barack Obama’s Defense Secretary pick. While Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) confirmation hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for Secretary of State went like clockwork, Hagel ran into a buzz-saw for opposing the Iraq War. Hagel tossed out his GOP career speaking his mind on Iraq, drawing parallels to Vietnam where the 66-year-old Hagel opposed former President George W. Bush’s Jan. 7, 2007 20,000-soldier “troop surge.” Hagel was critical of Bush’s March 20, 2003 decision to detour from Afghanistan into Iraq, without any known national security reason. When McCain faced Hagel today, he blasted the former senator for opposing the surge.
McCain aggressively asked Hagel for a yes-or-no answer on whether or not he thought the Iraq troop surge was right-or-wrong. Back in 2007, McCain was a big supporter in the troop surge, reasoning that the U.S. lost Vietnam because the nation committed too few troops. “I want to know whether you were right or wrong? That’s a direct question; I expect a direct answer,” asked McCain. Hagel tried to explain his answer, instead of answering McCain directly. “The surge assisted the objective,” conceded Hagel. “But if we review the record a little bit . . .” said Hagel, interrupted by McCain. “Were you right or wrong?” asked McCain. “That’s a pretty straightforward question.” “I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer,” Hagel told McCain. “If you would like me explain why . . .” again, interrupted. McCain played the “gothca-game,” and couldn’t get his answer.
Unable to explain the full record, Bush’s 2007, 20,000-soldier troop surge took six-months to roll out and actually increase U.S. casualty rates. While it’s tempting to say the “troop surge” worked, U.S. death rates actually jumped from 68 a month in 2006 to 75 a month in 2007. While casualty rates dropped precipitously to 26 a month in 2008 and 12 a month in 2009, it was more attributable to former Iraq Commander David Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy, eventually removing U.S. troops from dangerous combat situations. Hagel’s answer to McCain should have been “yes-and-no,” not “yes-or-no.” “I defer to the judgment of history,” said Hagel, further frustrating McCain. “History has already made a judgment about the surge, sir and you’re on the wrong side of it,” said McCain, throwing more barbs but not realizing that both sides were technically correct.
Hagel should have explained to McCain that Petraeus changed to a counterinsurgency strategy in 2007-08, keeping more U.S. soldiers out of harm’s way. Bush’s 2007 troop surge forced Petraeus to overhaul the U.S. Iraq strategy. If that’s what McCain meant by the surge being “right-or-wrong,” Hagel could have agreed. McCain overly simplified “yes-or-no,” didn’t explain Petraeus’ change of strategy that eventually withdrew U.S. troops from combat operations, dropping casualty rates in 2010 and 2011 to under five a month. Switching strategies and ending combat operations dramatically improved U.S. casualty rates, not the “surge” per se. While McCain scored some political points against Hagel, the public saw a principled man who sacrificed his political career opposing the Iraq War to save American lives. McCain and other Iraq apologists don’t talk about the cost of U.S. lives and tax dollars.
Questioned by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) about past remarks about the so-called “Jewish lobby,” Hagel backpedaled, admitting he couldn’t think of any decision backed by Jewish lobbying groups, especially American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee, that was a bad U.S. decision. “I am fully committed to the president’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons, and—as I’ve said in the past, many times—all options must be on the table to achieve that goal,” Hagel told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While McCain and Graham would like to paint Hagel as an isolationist, it’s clear he opposed the Iraq War because it was not in U.S. national security interest. Less than two years after Sept. 11, it wasn’t fashionable for anyone to question the Bush administration. Hagel stood up for what he believed in what President John F. Kennedy called a “profile in courage.”
Remaining cool under withering attacks, Hagel showed he could control his nerves and take a punch under pressure. While interrupted numerous times by McCain, it was clear that the two decorated Vietnam vets disagreed on the “troop surge.” McCain won’t admit that it was Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy that turned the corner in Iraq, not the “troop surge” itself. McCain hostile approach toward Hagel showed why he didn’t have the temperament to be president. Instead of picking on Chuck’s Achilles Heel, McCain should have spent his time highlighting Hagel’s impeccable credentials and integrity. Should he get approved as Defense Secretary, he’ll be the first enlisted soldier to serve in that job. Hagel’s two Purple Hearts pale in comparison to his grace-under-pressure showed during his inhospitable confirmation hearing. Like him or not, Hagel passed the test with flying colors.
About the Author
John M. Curtis writes politically neutral commentary analyzing spin in national and global news .He’s editor of Onlinecolumnist.com and author of Dodging The Bullet and Operation Charisma.