Friday, October 31, 2008

Odd man out

Chuck Hagel has long impressed me. He's a Republican who does not always look as if he is repeating his party's mantra; he actually displays seriousness, intelligence and sense. Both Presidential candidates want his endorsement. He would make a good Administration member.

Hagel declared that Bush had “sold his soul to the right wing” and called Bush’s campaign “the filthiest” he had ever seen. McCain was invited to speak at the 2000 Republican National Convention, and Hagel was allotted three minutes for the introduction. Moments before he was to walk onstage, a member of Bush’s team told him that he would have only ninety seconds. Hagel excoriated the man with a ferocity that McCain would have appreciated—and he delivered his three-minute speech.

Gotta admire that spunk. And he's an ardent internationalist: “All of us are touched by every event that unfolds in every corner of the world,” he often says.

McCain, on the other hand, believes in American exceptionalism: In the months after the September 11th attacks, he became an enthusiastic promoter of war in Iraq. In early January, 2002, as warplanes took off for Afghanistan, McCain stood on the flight bridge of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, and yelled, “Next up, Baghdad!” Hagel, who was on the trip with the same congressional delegation, told a reporter, “I think it would be wrong, very shortsighted, and very dangerous for the United States to unilaterally move on Iraq.”

Look who turned out to be right. Hagel did vote for the war in October, 2002. (He has since said that he regrets his vote.) And he opposed the surge McCain still extols: In a committee hearing in early 2007, he denounced the Bush Administration’s proposed “surge” strategy, which McCain strongly supported, as “the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”

More than, say, Richard Lugar, Chuck Hagel is easy to respect (Lugar I do respect, but not as readily nor as easily).

From 2004 on, McCain, in his desire to win the nomination, had embraced Bush’s policies ever more zealously, while Hagel had become the Administration’s most severe Republican critic. Although he has frequently voted with his party on domestic policy, his views on foreign policy represent a bold departure from those of the Administration, and his willingness to take Bush to task publicly has alienated many Republicans. In some ways, Hagel is far more of a maverick than McCain has ever been, and his endorsement would likely sway independents whose votes McCain probably needs in order to win.

On Iran: They also discussed McCain’s argument that Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic Presidential nominee, was wrong to pursue direct engagement with Iranian leaders. “And I said, ‘I don’t think he is. It’s what I’ve been saying, actually longer than Obama.’ I remember telling John—I said, ‘John, if you don’t engage Iran, where do you think this is going to go? We’re going to be in another war!’ ” (Hagel has been calling for direct, unconditional talks with Iran since 2001.)

The attacks on Obama for his declarations on Iran have been vicious distortions, par for the course for Republicans; the irony of that is that such distortions were used by Bush against McCain in 2000.

Hagel is mentioned in the press as a possible Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense. Defense; I want to see bill Richardson in State.

In mid-July, Hagel and his friend Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, accompanied Obama on a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq. Describing Baghdad to me after he returned, Hagel said, “You can’t walk around—you’ve got flak jackets, helmets on all the time, no matter where you are. It’s always struck me it’s almost like a Fellini movie, kind of unreal. The American people are told things are stable and secure and violence is down. No American would walk outside there without a convoy!”

What a revelation. The sense that prevails now is that all is going well in Iraq.

A traditional pro-business, small-government conservative, Hagel is a graduate of a Catholic high school, who is pro-life and supports school prayer. He occasionally broke with his party—on immigration reform, on the No Child Left Behind Act, on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage—but, according to Congressional Quarterly, in 2006 he voted with the President ninety-six per cent of the time.

Quite a combination; yet, still, he voted the party line the vast majority of the time. In 2007, that number went down to 72% of the time.

Hagel says that he attempted to offer advice privately to the White House but was rebuffed. He once called Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and asked to see him; Rumsfeld invited him to lunch. “I wanted to talk to him alone,” Hagel said. “And when I showed up he had a whole table full of generals and admirals.” During the Clinton Administration, he began writing letters to the President on foreign-policy issues of signal importance. “Clinton used to call me and we’d discuss it, or he’d ask me to come talk with him,” Hagel recalled. In the past eight years, he has written to Bush a number of times, including, most recently, letters about Russia and Iran. But he said that he has never received a response from the President. (He has occasionally received an acknowledgment from the assistant secretary for legislative affairs.)

Imagine: an assistant secretary sending acknowledgment. Clearly the Bushies do not think they need any input from Senator Hagel.

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