The first column I wrote for the Miami Herald, back in 2003, was one opposing the war in Iraq. It was a subject about which most Americans and I disagreed. Among them: then-Sen. Chuck Hagel.
Back then, the idea of invading Saddam Hussein’s madhouse had a momentum made unstoppable by the September 11 terror attacks. Never mind that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 — a subtle link was drawn between them by the Bush administration, and it stuck.
Over time, we doubters became the majority. For Republicans like Hagel, opposing the escalation of the war was more than an act of conscience, or in Hagel’s case, the dawning of reality mixed with his unique perspective as the veteran of another dubious war, in Vietnam. It was a risky political stand.
Not only was the Bush administration in the complete thrall of its neoconservatives, the media, by and large, was too. The front pages of The Washington Post and The New York Times fed the war fever as surely as did the Weekly Standard and the National Review.
The Iraq war is the great, unfinished business of our young century. The lies and bungled intelligence that took us there and the excruciating loss of life that preceded our combat troops finally leaving under President Barack Obama still sting. The stain on our national honor that was the Bush administration’s torture regime; and the horrible images from Abu Ghraib, continue to loom in the background of our national conscience — though the perpetrators of those indignities got off scot-free. There was no reckoning — just a lot of dead and wounded American troops, and dead and wounded Iraqis.
The neocons have gone marching on. Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer continue to press their cause on cable television, even spoiling for a new war adventure for other people’s sons and daughters to embark upon, in Iran.
Others, like former Vice President Dick Cheney, Undersecretaries of Defense Doug Feith and Paul Wolfowitz, and their boss Don Rumsfeld, have slunk off into the shadows of history.
Authors of America’s grotesque torture policy, like John Yoo and David Addington, have floated merrily back into academia, or in Addington’s case, to the perks of a promotion at the Heritage Foundation.
As for Chuck Hagel, so deeply opposed by America’s war wing? He isn’t perfect.
I disagree with his stance against abortion, and he rightly apologized for insulting a former U.S. ambassador as “aggressively gay.” A lot has changed since the 90s, in our culture, and in our laws. Hagel will have to reassure the public (and the Senate) that he can fully implement modern military policies like open service.
But I believe Hagel is a fitting leader for a Pentagon still shaking off the vestiges of magical thinking that propelled this country into an unprovoked war much like Vietnam — back when Cheney and many of his fellow war hawks had “better things to do” when their country came calling via the draft.
Hagel, like Obama, embodies our collective rejection of the ideas that brought us into Iraq. The realist strain in American foreign policy is back, full force, with Obama’s quiet power approach to the Arab Spring, and his clear reticence to send American troops into places like Syria or to Tehran. Some of the more troubling aspects of the new realism seem embedded too —like war by drone and indefinite detention. We’re still struggling, after all.
But on balance, Hagel seems to be the right man for this time.
Even his — and let’s face it, Obama’s — sterner stance toward Israel might actually help that country’s peacemakers resist the internal opponents to a two-state solution.
And if Hagel’s presence means an even more diminished influence for his former friend and comrade in arms, John McCain, and McCain’s sidekick Lindsey Graham, so be it. McCain’s personalization of policy does him and his colleagues no good. And his championing of the “war at all costs” zealotry of the remaining neocons cuts against the grain of the current American majority, who are tired of constant intervention abroad.
Lastly, Hagel is in a position to lead a sane reduction in the bloat of military spending, backed up by his war-won credibility with the men and women who do the fighting and the dying, since he truly is one of them.
Here’s to him showing the neocons the door.