Chuck Hagel. (AP Photos/Nati Harnik)

There is no worse place than a Senate confirmation hearing to get a sense of whether a nominee for a critical cabinet post is up to the job.

Chuck Hagel proved that Thursday, delivering a predictably cautious opening statement at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on his nomination to serve as President Obama’s secretary of defense. The questioning—from Republicans who now appear to despise the former Republican senator from Nebraska (including the ungrateful recipient of Hagel’s 2000 presidential endorsement: Arizona Senator John McCain)  and from Democrats who are still wrapping their head around the idea of Hagel as a member of the Obama cabinet—was only slightly more illuminating.

But there is nothing drab or predictable about Hagel. There’s a reason neocons and military contractors are so determined to block his confirmation. Hagel’s shown an independent streak that is not just rare in Washington; it explains why leaders of both parties are so frequently unsettled by the former senator, and why it is really quite remarkable that Obama has nominated this Vietnam veteran to serve as the first-ever “enlisted man” secretary of defense.

I don’t count myself as an enthusiast for Hagel on every front; I’ve still got troubles with his 2002 vote to authorize George W. Bush to take the country to war with Iraq, for instance. I know he will not be an ideal secretary of defense. I know he will disappoint at some point if he is confirmed. Probably at some point sooner than later.

But Hagel is a rare political figure who evolves, and who admits his errors. And he is not afraid to call out those who lied to him along the way, and those who continue to lie to themselves. It bugs the John McCains of the world that, in a town where few prominent politicians ever come clean, Hagel went honest on them.

And he did it at a point when a good many Democrats were still wrestling with the truth.

I spent a good deal of time following Hagel in the period from 2003 to 2007, when he emerged as the Republican Republicans loved to hate, and as the Republican who showed Democrats that they could—and should—be much more critical of the Bush-Cheney administration and the Pentagon.

Here is a piece I wrote back in those days that, I suspect, tells us a lot more than anything we’ll hear from an Armed Services Committee hearing about where Chuck Hagel is coming from, and why he stirs such anger among the guardians of the neocon fantasy and the keys to the military-industrial complex:

Chuck Hagel: Opposition Senator

Originally published on August 2, 2006

Who is the most outspoken and through-provoking Senate critic of the Bush administration’s misguided foreign policies?

Hint: The boldest opposition voice is not that of a Democrat.

Over the course of the past week, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a maverick conservative Republican from Nebraska, has scoured the administration for its misguided approaches in language far wiser and bolder than the empty stream of rhetoric that continues to pass the lips of his Democratic colleagues.

Here’s Hagel on Iraq: “[The occupation’s] an absolute replay of Vietnam.” The Vietnam veteran deplored the fact that U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq had become “easy targets” in a country that he told the Omaha World Herald had descended into “absolute anarchy.” Hagel condemned the decision of the Bush administration and its rubberstamping Pentagon to suspend military rotations and add new troops in Iraq—increasing the size of the occupation force from 130,000 to 135,000. “That isn’t going to do any good. It’s going to have a worse effect,” argues Hagel. “They’re destroying the United States Army.”

More significantly, here’s Hagel on the failure of the United States to use its influence with Israel to end the killing of innocent Lebanese men, women and children and the destruction of that country’s civilian infrastructure: “How do we realistically believe that a continuation of the systematic destruction of an American friend—the country and people of Lebanon—is going to enhance America’s image and give us the trust and credibility to lead a lasting and sustained peace effort in the Middle East? The sickening slaughter on both sides must end now,” Hagel said on the Senate floor. Delivering the message that should be coming from the opposition party, the senior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee declared: “President Bush must call for an immediate cease fire. This madness must stop.”

Most significantly of all, here’s Hagel making the connection between the occupation of Iraq and the broader Middle East crisis: “America is bogged down in Iraq, and this is limiting our diplomatic and military options.” Because the Bush administration deals in unreasonable “absolutes” when it approaches disputes in the region, the senator said, the United States in no longer seen as the “wellspring of consensus” that might be able to develop multi-national support for peace initiatives.

Finally, here’s Hagel on what the U.S. should be doing in the Middle East: “We know that without engaged and active American leadership, the world is more dangerous,” explains the senator, who has been talked about as a possible 2008 presidential contender. So, he says, the US must engage. Instead of Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s hands-off approach, Hagel argues, US diplomats should be working with Arab governments, including governments that leaders in Washington may not like. Rejecting Bush’s ranting about Syria and Iran, Hagel says the US should be in direct negotiations with those countries. The senator characterized the administration’s decision to pull the US ambassador out of Damascus as “mindless.” Paraphrasing the advice of a retired senior US intelligence officer, Hagel said, “Even superpowers have to talk to bad guys. We ought to be able to communicate in a way that signals our strength and self-confidence.”

To those who would suggest that the US must choose between supporting Israel and engaging with its Arab neighbors, even those neighbors that Washington may consider to be “bad guys,” Hagel offered one of the sanest statements heard on the floor of the Senate in the whole debate over the Middle East crisis: “Our relationship with Israel is special and historic,” the Nebraskan said. “But it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice.”

Hagel is far from a perfect player. He doesn’t have all the answers. He’s not even proposing bold responses to the current crisis, and not all that he suggests is wise or responsible. The senator’s simply a throwback to the old bipartisan consensus that said diplomacy and common sense ought to guide US foreign policy, as opposed to messianic ranting and kneejerk reaction. Bush and his neoconservative colleagues are so out of touch with global realities and traditional American values with regard to diplomacy that they don’t even understand where Hagel is coming from. Unfortunately, the Democrats are so lacking in spine and vision that, while they may recognize that Hagel is right about the failures and false choices that are the byproducts of this president’s policies, they lack the guts to borrow enough pages from Republican senator’s playbook to make themselves an effective opposition party.

Read John Nichols’s primer on Chuck Hagel’s candidacy for secretary of defense.