It’s official. President Barack Obama has picked former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense. And the opposition is already under way. Some gay activists are upset about Hagel’s 1998 comment that James Hormel, whom President Bill Clinton had nominated to be ambassador to Luxembourg, was “openly aggressively gay.” Hagel has apologized. Hormel hasn’t accepted. But at least one gay rights leader has proclaimed his support for Hagel. Meanwhile, pro-Israel hawks have been griping that Hagel has not been sufficiently hardline in supporting Tel Aviv. But Hagel does have one major point in his favor: He opposed the Iraq war. Or sort of.
In October 2002, when Congress was fiercely debating a measure that would allow President George W. Bush to invade Iraq, Hagel noted several reasons why this was a bad idea and presciently predicted all that could go wrong. Yet he still voted for the measure, mostly out of party loyalty (which GOPers now accuse him of no longer possessing). When Hagel was contemplating a presidential run in 2008, I examined his 2002 stance in a TomPaine.com column. I’ve pasted it below.
Of all the senators eyeing the White House in 2008, this Nebraskan [Hagel] was the only one to express deep reservations about the resolution—while still voting for it. “America—including the Congress—and the world, must speak with one voice about Iraqi disarmament, as it must continue to do so in the war on terrorism,” Hagel said in explaining his vote. But he was prescient: “If disarmament in Iraq requires the use of force, we need to consider carefully the implications and consequences of our actions. The future of Iraq after Saddam Hussein is also an open question. Some of my colleagues and some American analysts now speak authoritatively of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq, and how Iraq can be a test case for democracy in the Arab world. How many of us really know and understand much about Iraq, the country, the history, the people, the role in the Arab world? I approach the issue of post-Saddam Iraq and the future of democracy and stability in the Middle East with more caution, realism and a bit more humility.” He added, “Imposing democracy through force in Iraq is a roll of the dice. A democratic effort cannot be maintained without building durable Iraqi political institutions and developing a regional and international commitment to Iraq’s reconstruction. No small task.”
Hagel was disappointed in the discourse within the Senate: “We should spend more time debating the cost and extent of this commitment, the risks we may face in military engagement with Iraq, the implications of the precedent of United States military action for regime change and the likely character and challenges of a post-Saddam Iraq. We have heard precious little from the President, his team, as well as from this Congress, with a few notable exceptions, about these most difficult and critical questions.” And he cautioned humility: “I share the hope of a better world without Saddam Hussein, but we do not really know if our intervention in Iraq will lead to democracy in either Iraq or elsewhere in the Arab world.” Bottom line: Hagel feared the resolution would lead to a war that would go badly but didn’t have the guts to say no to the leader of his party.
Hagel took a thoughtful approach to the question of the invasion. His worries were dead-on. Yet he had the wiggle room to vote for the measure because there remained a possibility—albeit slight—that Bush would not use this authority and the conflict with Saddam Hussein would be resolved without US military intervention. In considering the invasion and its implications, Hagel had the right take; he just couldn’t bring himself to vote accordingly.