In the bitter debate that led up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said that some of his fellow Republicans, in their zest for war, lacked the perspective of veterans like him, who have “sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off.”
Those Republicans in turn called him an “appeaser” whose cautious geopolitical approach dangerously telegraphed weakness in the post-Sept. 11 world.
The campaign now being waged against Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense is in some ways a relitigation of that decade-old dispute. It is also a dramatic return to the public stage by the neoconservatives, whose worldview remains a powerful undercurrent in the Republican Party and in the national debate about the United States’ relationship with Israel and the Middle East.
To Hagel’s allies, his presence at the Pentagon would be a very personal repudiation of the interventionist approach to foreign policy championed by the “Vulcans” in the administration of President George W. Bush, who believed in pre-emptive strikes against potential threats and the promotion of democracy, by military means if necessary.
“This is the neocons’ worst nightmare because you’ve got a combat soldier, successful businessman and senator who actually thinks there may be other ways to resolve some questions other than force,” said Richard L. Armitage, who broke with the more hawkish members of the Bush team during the Iraq War when he was a deputy to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, who championed the Iraq invasion and is leading the opposition to Hagel’s nomination, says the former senator and his supporters are suffering from “neoconservative derangement syndrome.”
Kristol said he and other like-minded hawks were more concerned about Hagel’s occasional arguments against sanctions, what they consider his overcautious attitudes about military action against Iran and his tougher approach to Israel than they were about his views on Iraq — aside from his outspoken opposition to the U.S. troop surge there.
“I’d much prefer a secretary of defense who was a more mainstream internationalist — not a guy obsessed by how the United States uses its power and would always err on the side of not intervening,” Kristol said.
Of Hagel and his allies, Kristol said, “They sort of think we should have just gone away.”
In fact, the neoconservatives have done anything but disappear. In the years since the war’s messy end, the most hawkish promoters have maintained enormous sway within the GOP, holding leading advisory posts in the presidential campaigns of John McCain and Mitt Romney as their counterparts in the “realist” wing of the party gravitated toward Barack Obama.
The most outspoken among them had leading roles in developing the rationale and, in some cases, the plan for invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein.
One critic is Elliott Abrams, a national security adviser to Bush during the Iraq War who pleaded guilty in the Iran-Contra scandal to withholding information from Congress. He called Hagel an anti-Semite who has “some kind of problem with Jews” in an interview on NPR last week. (The Council on Foreign Relations, where Abrams is a senior fellow, distanced itself from his comments.)
The Emergency Committee for Israel, a conservative group, has run a TV advertisement and has a website calling Hagel an inappropriate choice for the Defense Department, citing some of his votes against sanctions on Iran and Libya and his calls to engage in direct talks with groups like Hamas. Its donors have included activist financier Daniel S. Loeb, and Abrams’ wife, Rachel, serves on its board.
Hagel’s earliest concerns arose before the congressional vote authorizing the use of force. “You can take the country into a war pretty fast,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 2002, “but you can’t get us out as quickly, and the public needs to know what the risks are.” In the interview, he took a swipe at Richard Perle, a former chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee and then one of the most visible promoters of the war, saying, “Maybe Mr. Perle would like to be in the first wave of those who go into Baghdad.” Perle had never served in the military.
Along with Hagel’s comment in Newsweek that many of the war’s most steadfast proponents “don’t know anything about war,” his criticism prompted a national discussion about “chicken hawks,” a derisive term for those advocating war with no direct experience of it.