It’s an understatement to say Chuck Hagel didn’t do well in his all-day Senate confirmation hearings last week. The former Nebraska senator, whom President Obama nominated as Secretary of Defense, was just terrible.
He evaded questions, hemmed and hawed over others, recanted or corrected previous statements, and apologized for some more. He was even outright wrong that the Obama Administration supported “containment” of a nuclear Iran. (The president wants to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.)
But the other side of the equation may be even more important. Republican senators like Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, and Kelly Ayotte grilled Hagel mercilessly, mostly about his positions on Israel and Iran. There was little about Afghanistan, China, North Korea or the rest of the world, for that matter.
And there was a surprising amount of time spent on Iraq, a war that’s over. The central focus of the media coverage was Sen. John McCain’s relentless cross-examination of Hagel over the “surge” in Iraq.
That was the 2007 hike in American troops in Iraq by the Bush Administration which in the fantasy world of some people led to a U.S. “victory” in that misguided war. At best it gave us a figleaf to wind down our presence without the humiliating defeat of Vietnam.
In the hearings, these two decorated Vietnam combat veterans—and former friends and Republican Senate colleagues—faced off. The most dramatic moment came when McCain, acting like a prosecutor, demanded a “yes” or “no” answer about the surge, which he supported and Hagel opposed.
Here’s the Guardian’s account:
McCain pressed Hagel to say whether he stood by his opposition to the surge of troop levels in Iraq. “Are you going to answer the question, Senator Hagel? The question is whether you were right or wrong,” said McCain.
Hagel said he was not going to give a yes or no answer, but McCain came back at him. “I think history has already made a judgment about the surge sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it,” he said.
Indeed, this is a battle over how history will judge the surge and the Iraq war in general. McCain and other neocons still think it was the right thing to invade Iraq and unseat Saddam Hussein, and they still think military action is a useful way to resolve future disputes—like, say, Iran’s nuclear program.
This is where the past meets the future: If the Iraq war was justified and the surge saved the day, then an attack on Iran—along with Israel—to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities might make sense. If, on the other hand, the war was a failure, as the American people believe, then the government must use extreme caution, not reckless saber-rattling, in dealing with Iran.
McCain and the neocons know well that the president chose Hagel precisely because of his criticisms of Iraq. Hagel will join what is essentially an antiwar national security team that will think twice or three times before committing the US to war with Iran, if it should come to that.
This was the neocons’ last chance to stop him and flex their muscles with the White House. They’re likely to fail—McCain is opposed to using the filibuster to stop Hagel’s nomination, Politico reports.
Maybe they should instead think hard about the failures of their own bellicose foreign policy and—heaven forfend—admit a mistake or two rather than take a last stand that had no better chance of success than Gen. Custer’s did.