Dave Weaver/AP

Analysis: Is Chuck Hagel being punished for stance on Iraq?

For too many lawmakers, a Defense Secretary Hagel would be a nagging reminder of what they got wrong.

In his Pulitzer-winning book Profiles in Courage, which told the stories of eight U.S. senators who defied their parties and public opinion to stand up for what they believed was right, John F. Kennedy wrote: "A man does what he must--in spite of personal consequences, in spite of obstacles and dangers and pressures--and that is the basis of all human morality."

At a time when Republican leadership in Washington seems to be all but absent, and courage nonexistent, perhaps we should remember that an antiabortion GOP senator with a respectable lifetime rating of 84 from the American Conservative Union made the same choice, a decade ago, as the heroic figures portrayed in JFK’s book. In the process, Chuck Hagel effectively sacrificed his political career for his beliefs—which, by and large, turned out to be right.

Let’s not kid ourselves or the reading public. Hagel may have said some questionable things about Iran, Israel, and “the Jewish lobby” over the years. But it is largely because of his sin of defiance a decade ago, and for the bigger sin of getting the biggest strategic choice of the 21st century right when so many others—both Republicans and Democrats—got it wrong that Chuck Hagel is persona non grata on Capitol Hill today. Given the rising resistance to him, it is looking less likely that Hagel will be the next Defense secretary (after all, President Obama hasn't even nominated him yet). But if that’s the case, we at least ought to be clear on the reasons.

Here’s the record. Beginning in early 2002, shortly after President Bush declared in his State of the Union speech that America must take on the “Axis of Evil” consisting of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, Hagel began speaking his mind about the increasingly errant course of the administration’s “war on terror,” which even then was losing sight of the real quarry, al-Qaida. "Iran actually has been quite helpful in Afghanistan," Hagel, then a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Congressional Quarterly on Feb. 1, 2002, in his initial act of apostasy. "They pledged twice what the United States did to the interim [Afghan] government. They have found some common interests with us that have been helpful.... We're giving them the back of our hand.” Presciently, Hagel added: "We're not isolating [the Iranians]. We're isolating ourselves.... We ought to be a little more thoughtful. That [axis] comment only helps the mullahs."

Hagel’s reading of the situation was dead-on. As it turned out, Bush’s “Axis of Evil” conceit backfired disastrously--first, in losing whatever positive ground America had gained with Iran; and second, in beginning to sow serious doubts among U.S. allies about what had been, until then, a united global front against al-Qaida. As some of us have previously reported, immediately after 9/11, U.S.-Iranian relations grew closer than at any time since the fall of the shah. Washington wanted Iran's help in Afghanistan, and Iran gave it, partly out of fear of an angry superpower and partly to be rid of its troublesome Taliban neighbors next door.

Indeed, according to an interview I did with Jim Dobbins, Bush's first envoy to Afghanistan, five years after Hagel’s comments, the Nebraska Republican had it right. The leader of the Iranian delegation to the Bonn talks on postwar Afghanistan, Javad Zarif, had been enormously helpful to the U.S. on a number of fronts. Zarif, a good-humored University of Denver alumnus who would later become Iran’s U.N. ambassador, even urged the American delegation to commit Afghanistan to democratization, Dobbins said. And toward the end of the Bonn talks, Dobbins told me in 2007, "we reached a pivotal moment." The various parties had decided that American-backed Hamid Karzai would lead the new Afghan government. But Karzai was a Pashtun tribal leader from the south, and it was Tajik rivals from the Northern Alliance who had actually occupied the capital. At 2 a.m. on the day before the deal was to be signed, the Northern Alliance delegate, Yunus Qanooni, was stubbornly demanding the vast majority of ministries in the new government. After negotiators gathered in the suite of United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, Zarif translated for Qanooni. Finally, according to Dobbins, at close to 4 a.m., the Iranian leaned over to whisper in the Afghan's ear that he’d have to take less: " 'This is the best deal you're going to get.' " Qanooni said, " 'OK.' "

That moment, Dobbins said, was critical. "The Russians and the Indians had been making similar points," he said. "But it wasn't until Zarif took him aside that it was settled.... We might have had a situation like we had in Iraq, where we were never able to settle on a single leader and government." A month later, Tehran backed up the political support with financial muscle: at a donor's conference in Tokyo, Iran pledged $500 million (at the time, more than double the Americans' contribution) to help rebuild Afghanistan.

Imagine, then, the reaction from Tehran after Bush included Iran in his Axis of Evil. "Those who were in favor of a rapprochement with the United States were marginalized," Mohammad Hossein Adeli, an Iranian Foreign Ministry official, told Newsweek in 2007. "The speech somehow exonerated those who had always doubted America's intentions." 

As the year 2002 wore on, and Bush’s designs on Iraq became clearer, Hagel began to speak out more against the administration’s direction, and to urge more peacemaking efforts between Israelis and Palestinians instead, despite the recalcitrance of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Appearing on CNN on Jan. 12, following Senate colleagues such as John McCain and Joe Lieberman who were already talking about the need to take on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Hagel said: “I think it would be unwise and dangerous if the United States would move unilaterally against Iraq. My fundamental question is, "What happens next? So if you take Saddam Hussein out who governs? Do you let Iraq be fractured into many components?”

Hagel also began calling for a real national debate about Iraq. It is one that never really occurred, as Democrats were afraid of being seen as squeamish and as leading pundits like Thomas Friedman of The New York Times began calling blithely for a “war of choice” against Iraq. Hagel found himself increasingly alone. "We need a national dialogue," Hagel told The Times in July 2002. "That was a debate we didn't have with Vietnam." But even as other skeptics faded, Hagel refused to relent in his public skepticism. Why was he so isolated? As Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings (another Iraq skeptic turned hawk) explained around that time: "There's no real political benefit to opposing Bush. If we oppose him and he does go to war, there is a definite political cost."

Hagel began paying that cost. Once frequently mentioned as a Republican prospect for president, he grew increasingly strident and alone. He began to cast doubt on the administration’s case for war, saying in August 2002 that the CIA has "absolutely no evidence" that Iraq possesses or will soon possess nuclear weapons (another correct view). Ultimately, in a moment of weakness, Hagel backed the Senate’s war-powers resolution in the fall of 2002, but he reached across the aisle to work with then-Sen. Joe Biden to restrain Bush’s freedom to invade. And, as 2003 got under way, Hagel kept calling for more time for U.N. inspectors (who, unbeknownst to most of the American public, were being given unfettered access to all of Saddam’s WMD sites, bar none).

"We should give them that time and continue to share intelligence and information with them that will assist them in identifying possible weapons sites and supplies," Hagel said. A week before the invasion, on March 6, he told CNN: “The diplomatic channels have not yet been fully exhausted,” adding that Bush needed to stress his efforts at the U.N. “America must be seen as a just and careful and wise leader. If we are able to project that image, then I think nations will come with us, even if we have to use a military option.”

Later, after the invasion, and as the Iraqi insurgency rose, Hagel began to criticize the administration’s management of the war; but by then, of course, he had plenty of company.

The truth about Chuck Hagel is that he saw before most that America was embarking on an unparalleled strategic disaster by diverting its attention from al-Qaida a decade ago. He saw, and had the courage to say, that his own president and party were failing to anticipate the enormous cost of going into Iraq and of losing focus in Afghanistan. He saw that Bush was isolating himself by inventing an entirely new war that both defied world opinion and—in another enormous strategic misconception—gave al-Qaida new life by vindicating Osama bin Laden’s once-unheeded warnings to his fellow Islamists that the real peril was the “far enemy,” the United States. As Hagel divined, by invading Iraq, Bush displaced the dictatorships in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other “near” regimes as the bogeyman in the jihadi imagination.

We are still paying dearly for that mistake in blood and treasure, and yet very few people who supported it--senators, pundits, editors--have shown the integrity thus far to admit that they were wrong. And that Hagel was right.

In Washington, one is forgiven many things: sex scandals, massive errors of judgment. Being right is another matter. For too many lawmakers on Capitol Hill, it would be just too uncomfortable to have Hagel restored to power. He would be a living, nagging reminder of just how much they got wrong.