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As far back as the mid-1990s, Republican Senator John McCain – Vietnam War hero – established himself as a top GOP spokesman on issues of national security. He staked his claim as a soldier who had been captured by the North Vietnamese in 1967, was brutally tortured, and almost died. His broken arms and leg were never properly treated, but he was nevertheless placed in a tiger cage in solitary confinement for two years.
That might explain why this former POW supported the surge of troops in Iraq and why he lit into his one-time friend, Chuck Hagel, at last Thursday’s contentious Senate hearings. Hagel, President Obama’s choice for Defense Secretary to replace Leon Panetta, publicly opposed the surge and called it “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”
But that may not fully explain why McCain bore down so hard on Hagel.
McCain and Hagel are both decorated Vietnam War veterans who were once good friends. Those who know them ascribe many of the same qualities to both: opinionated, irascible, certain they’re right. The rift between the two men dates back to the 2000s and their increasingly divergent views of the Iraq War. While each voted for the use-of-force resolution against Iraq, over time, Hagel’s support for the war dimmed and he was never hesitant to make that known.
McCain, for his part, was adamant the escalation of American forces was an important factor in tamping down the conflict there. In time, history has largely proved McCain (and many others) right.
During Thursday’s hearings, McCain looked hard at the former senator from Nebraska whose office was once next to his and asked him several times if history would judge whether Hagel had been right or wrong in opposing the surge in 2007.
Hagel wouldn’t answer him directly. “I actually would like an answer, yes or no,” said McCain, not letting up.
“Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no,” Hagel responded.
McCain then said, “I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it. And your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether I vote for your confirmation or not.”
Only later, under questioning by a much more accepting Bill Nelson (D-Florida), did Hagel finally say, “I did question a surge. I always ask the question, is this going to be worth the sacrifice?”
“In conversations with a number of people familiar with the relationship [between McCain and Hagel], it’s clear that a combination of policy disagreements, political slights and personality conflicts led to the collapse of a once-close friendship,” said Chris Cilliza of The Washington Post.
Many Republicans also spurn Hagel for going well outside the party line on a number of issues.
One historian sees it a little differently. “The Republicans are scared of Hagel because they see him as an indictment of their own wrongness about Iraq, defense spending and nation building,” Craig Shirley, author of several books about Ronald Reagan, told The Fiscal Times. “He dared to question his betters.”
Shirley also believes that the GOP – in the midst of a messy reinvention two just months after President Obama’s reelection – “is overrun with guilt, second-guessing and insecurities. It’s like a marriage gone bad. Hagel is simply the latest target of the dysfunctional Republicans.”
The Republican National Committee, for its part, has hardly been silent on the Hagel nomination. Last week it issued a research brief taking Hagel, 66, to task on a number of contentious issues on which he’s parted ways with the GOP.
The paper, entitled, “Chuck Hagel Is the Wrong Choice for Secretary of Defense,” criticizes him for supporting sequestration cuts “that Obama’s outgoing Defense Secretary [Panetta] warns will ‘devastate our national security.’” Hagel has said in the past that the Defense Dept. had bloat and could and should be pared down – and as secretary, he would be the one presiding over those cuts.
The RNC also calls him out for his opposition to missile defense; for his opposition to nuclear weapons; for the fact that he’s been “unwilling to stand up to America’s enemies”; for being “weak on Iran”; and “weak on [the] Castro regime”; and that he’s been a “weak ally of Israel”; and much more.
Says Shirley, “Hagel, unlike other Republican nominees for cabinet positions, such as Ray LaHood or Jon Huntsman, had the temerity to question the status quo of the GOP… Anyone who challenges it is deemed a heretic.”
But this alone doesn’t explain the Hagel bashing, though most experts say he’ll end up grabbing the nomination because Democrats who are not enthusiastic about his appointment will hold their noses and vote for him. (A filibuster of his nomination is still possible though highly unlikely.) In a piece in Slate, David Weigel described Hagel as “a nominee who searched for words like he was trapped in a closet, grasping for a dropped flashlight.”
With most political experts and analysts declaring Hagel’s performance underwhelming at best, the White House defended the Obama pick. Spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Friday, “I would be stunned if, in the end, Republican senators chose to try to block the nomination of a decorated war veteran who was once among their colleagues in the Senate as a Republican.”
Maybe. But that might depend on whether the GOP sees Hagel as a colleague or a defector.