Sen. Chuck Hagel addresses audience members at the nomination announcement for Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense. (Flickr / Secretary of Defense)
If President Obama is determined to select a former senator to serve as Secretary of Defense, the ideal pick would be someone who at the very least saw through the flimsy arguments for authorizing George Bush’s war with Iraq.
That excludes Chuck Hagel , the Vietnam veteran and former Republican senator who Obama has tapped for the Pentagon post.
In 2002, as the senator from Nebraska, Hagel  voted with the Bush-Cheney White House on that one, despite overwhelming evidence that the war was unnecessary and unwise, and that the pre-authorization was antithetical to the constitutional premise that wars must be declared by Congress.
Twenty-three senators—almost a quarter of the chamber—got the issue right . Their number included not just twenty-one Democrats but also a Republican (Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee) and a former Republican serving as an independent (Vermont’s Jim Jeffords). The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, opposed the legislation. So too did the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Florida’s Bob Graham. In the House, 133 members, including six Republicans from across the ideological spectrum of the party (moderates, conservatives and libertarians) voted “no.”
And in Illinois, a young state senator told a Chicago rally:
I don’t oppose all wars. My grandfather signed up for a war the day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, fought in Patton’s army. He fought in the name of a larger freedom, part of that arsenal of democracy that triumphed over evil.
I don’t oppose all wars. After September 11, after witnessing the carnage and destruction, the dust and the tears, I supported this administration’s pledge to hunt down and root out those who would slaughter innocents in the name of intolerance, and I would willingly take up arms myself to prevent such tragedy from happening again.
I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.
What I am opposed to is the attempt by political hacks like Karl Rove to distract us from a rise in the uninsured, a rise in the poverty rate, a drop in the median income, to distract us from corporate scandals and a stock market that has just gone through the worst month since the Great Depression.
That’s what I’m opposed to. A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics.
The Barack Obama of 2002 was right. Authorizing George Bush to attack Iraq gave George Bush and Dick Cheney what the senior member of the Senate at the time, West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, referred to as a “blank check” for endless war. And Bush and Cheney cashed it, at the expense of thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives and a total expense to the US economy—as estimated by Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz —of far more than $3 trillion.
As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hagel had access to the same information as Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, yet he did not join Feingold and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy in boldly opposing “The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002.” Had he done so—as some expected because of Hagel’s frequent expressed doubts about the Bush-Cheney administration line—would it have changed the course of history? Perhaps not. But it would have put Hagel on the right side of history.
As it was, the Nebraskan was one of the first senators to begin questioning the wisdom of the war . It was in that questioning that he forged a relationship with Obama, who came to the Senate in 2005—and who would eventually appoint Hagel to various White House advisory positions and consider the former senator for cabinet posts and the directorship of the Central Intelligence Agency (even, some reports suggest, the vice presidency).
Hagel has, to his credit, grown even more skeptical about military adventurism abroad. He even went so far as to oppose Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan, saying, “I’m not sure we know what the hell we are doing in Afghanistan .”
Of the Afghanistan intervention, which he will be charged with dialing down if he is confirmed as defense secretary, Hagel says : “We have lost our purpose, our objective. We are in a universe of unpredictables and uncontrollables.”
That sort of talk unsettles neoconservatives , as did Hagel’s assertion that he was a senator from Nebraska, not Israel . So the Hagel nomination will face a fight, ginned up by, among others, conservative commentator William Kristol, who believes that it will be possible to reunite and refocus disoriented congressional Republicans on battles to block Obama nominees.
When the neocons rally on one side, it can lead liberals (and even some progressives) to instinctually go to the other side. And that’s happening with the Hagel nomination. To be sure, liberals will find Hagel pronouncements that are appealing, such as his assertion in his autobiography : “Not that I’m a pacifist, I’m a hard-edged realist, I understand the world as it is, but war is a terrible thing. There’s no glory, only suffering,” And a 2011 reflection on his own Vietnam service, in which Hagel said : “We sent home almost 16,000 body bags that year . And I always thought to myself, ‘If I get through this, if I have the opportunity to influence anyone, I owe it to those guys to never let this happen again to the country.’”
It in good that Hagel has gone out of his way to express support for gays and lesbians in the military , and that he has apologized for an old slur against an openly gay ambassador. And it is genuinely encouraging to think that the next secretary of defense might be a man who just a year and a half ago told the Financial Times: “The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated. So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.”
On balance, such policy statements may well make the case for confirming Hagel. Indeed, as former Massachusetts congressman (and possible interim Massachusetts Senator) Barney Frank , who once recommended against a Hagel nomination, says: “The question now is going to be Afghanistan and scaling back the military. In terms of the policy stuff, if he would be rejected [by the Senate], it would be a setback for those things.”
Frank speaks for a lot of liberals in the Senate, and they will probably vote to confirm Hagel.
But that confirmation ought not come without some serious reflection on, and serious questioning of, his vote to hand George Bush and Dick Cheney that “blank check” for war with Iraq. When it came time for the great judgment call of the past decade, when he was required to move from words to deeds, Hagel got it wrong.
For an update on the Iraq quagmire, read Robert Dreyfuss's blog post  from last week.