Chuck Hagel: A Man to Watch -- Carefully

Paul Greenberg

1/15/2013 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

It should be interesting, the confirmation hearings on the nomination of Charles Hagel to be the next secretary of defense of the United States.

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A lot more interesting than the hearings on John Kerry's nomination as secretary of state or John Brennan's nomination as director of the Central Intelligence Agency. There may have been a time when those nominations were supposed to be controversial, but compared to the choice of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, both look like cinches to sail through the confirmation process.

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Mr. Hagel's qualifications to head the Defense Department begin with his war record, for he served bravely and honorably in Vietnam, being wounded twice in action. But that may also be where his qualifications end. Can anyone recall a single piece of legislation, a notable law, or any other signal accomplishment of his all the time he served as a senator? Has he ever run an enterprise, let alone one as vast as the Department of Defense? If so, some of us would sure like to know.

And talk about a about a sunshine soldier: Having voted to go to war in Iraq, Sen. Hagel chose the lowest point of American fortunes there to announce that now was the time not to reinforce our troops but to withdraw them.

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Even before he was sworn in as the newest congressman from Arkansas, Tom Cotton was asking the kind of questions Chuck Hagel's record invites. A combat veteran of both Iraq and Afghanistan, Captain and now Congressman Cotton knew Chuck Hagel's name. And so did the men who served under him in Iraq. They had good reason to, or rather bad reasons.

To quote Tom Cotton's op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal when Chuck Hagel's name was first floated as the next secretary of defense:

"Our fighting men and women deserve a leader who will not only honor their service, but also advocate for them and honor their accomplishments.

Regrettably, the former senator's dismal record on Iraq suggests that he will do none of those things -- for he abandoned the very troops he once voted to send to war. I would know, because I was one of them.

"Over Thanksgiving weekend in 2006, two years before his retirement as the Republican senator from Nebraska, Mr. Hagel penned a column for the Washington Post entitled 'Leaving Iraq, Honorably.' He asserted that 'there will be no victory or defeat for the United States in Iraq,' and 'the time for more U.S. troops in Iraq has passed.' Rather, Mr. Hagel argued, we 'must begin planning for a phased troop withdrawal.' Imagine my surprise at the senator's assertions, having just returned that week from combat in Baghdad as an infantry platoon leader with the 101st Airborne Division. My soldiers had fought bravely to stabilize that city, protect innocent civilians and defeat al-Qaida. Those soldiers were proud of their accomplishments. No one had told us during our time in Baghdad that we would achieve 'no victory.' Readers might have shared my surprise at Mr.

Hagel's words if he had mentioned his earlier vote supporting the war."

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Maybe there's some explanation for Chuck Hagel's turnaround at the darkest hour for American forces in Iraq. He certainly should be allowed to offer one during his confirmation hearings. If he can.

Even when the Surge he had opposed proved a dramatic success, Mr. Hagel refused to admit it. The remarkable progress there, he explained, wasn't because of the Surge but other factors, as if he begrudged our troops their victory.

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Chuck Hagel didn't fool a young captain named Tom Cotton for a minute. To quote his comment: "Even after the Surge had succeeded, Mr. Hagel could not bring himself to celebrate our military's accomplishment. In late 2008, with casualties down by 85 percent, Mr. Hagel still questioned the Surge's success. He credited the Anbar Awakening of Sunni tribal leaders against al-Qaida (as if the Surge didn't encourage them), Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr's stand-down (as if the Surge didn't scare him) and improved intelligence systems (as if the Surge didn't introduce them)."

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It's one thing to have made a misjudgment at a crucial moment, another to be unable to admit it. Other senators who opposed the Surge -- like Barack Obama, who would become commander-in-chief of all American armed forces -- would come to recognize the success of the Surge in Iraq in the most sincere way: by adopting much the same strategy in Afghanistan. But not Chuck Hagel. Why? Maybe he can address that question, too, during his confirmation hearings.

And not just that question. Even more impressive, and depressing, was the senator's vote against designating the Revolutionary Guards, Iran's terrorist spearhead, a terrorist organization. That was in 2007, when the Guards were still flooding Iraq with the IEDs used to kill American GIs.

Some of us would like to hear him explain that vote, too.

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The man's record when it comes to the Middle East in general has not been all of a piece, and all of it disturbing.

Item: Chuck Hagel long has advocated cozying up to Bashar al-Assad's repressive regime. "I believe there is a real possibility of a shift in Syria's strategic thinking and policies." That was Mr. Hagel speaking as late as October of 2009; surely, he's changed his mind since in light of the Syrian regime's ever-mounting atrocities against its own people. His confirmation hearings should give him the opportunity to finally -- finally! -- speak up for the victims instead of their killers.

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Let it be said that, at least in one regard, Chuck Hagel has never wavered over the years: his animus toward Israel -- which has been a steadfast American ally in that part of the world, unlike Syria and Iran. But now he says there's "not one shred of evidence that I'm anti-Israel."

Really? How about his saying "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here" in Washington but not him? Or his assertion, when the Israelis struck back against Hezbollah in 2006, that they were engaged in "the systematic destruction of an American friend, the country and people of Lebanon." As if it were not Hezbollah, Iran's terrorist pawn, that was threatening Lebanon, its state and people. Chuck Hagel claims to support Israel, but if that's support, what would undermining it be?

When you take the man's remarks about Israel over the years, and his supportive words for those regimes out to destroy it, there's more than "a shred of evidence" for his bias against the Jewish state. He's made a career of it.

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The man Barack Obama would put in charge of American defenses doesn't seem all that keen on bolstering them. When the current secretary of defense warned that sequestering the Department of Defense's funds would cripple America's armed forces, Chuck Hagel was unfazed. His comment: "The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated, so I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down."

Mr. Hagel made that statement even as members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were testifying that the sequester would have "a severe and irreversible impact on the Navy's future," "a Marine Corps that's below the end strength to support even one major contingency," and "an unacceptable level of strategic and operational risk" for the Army. The question at this point isn't whether Mr. Hagel is acceptable as a nominee for secretary of defense, but whether he's correctable.

Just where would Mr. Hagel pare down American defenses? Maybe he can elaborate on that point during his confirmation hearings, which should be interesting not just for the light they shed on his ideas about defending this country, or not defending it, but on the president who nominated him.

This is the man our president called "the leader our troops deserve."

Surely they deserve better than a leader with Chuck Hagel's record.