In the end, Chuck Hagel’s tenure as Secretary of Defense was a success. After Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, the Obama Administration chose Hagel to bring the Pentagon back into the fold. No more leaks; no more celebrity generals; no more pushback on troops in Afghanistan or weapons to Syria.
The Administration wanted someone to slash the budget and bring the services into line, and maybe lend some top cover to a group with very little combat experience. Hagel succeeded in that. He failed only in as much as those priorities weren’t enough, not nearly enough, to stop ISIS and stare down Putin.
Hagel himself was an odd mix of accomplishment and charade. He saw war firsthand as a sergeant in Vietnam, where he earned two Purple Hearts, and on his nomination became the first enlisted combat veteran to rise to the Secretary’s job. He was a businessman in Nebraska and then a U.S. Senator, and surely was a louder voice than the more reserved Cornhusker State usually offered to the legislature. He was also good with the troops, and for the nation’s second-highest commander in wartime that matters.
Yet much about him was also an utter myth. His rise to national prominence came largely from being a critic of the Iraq war -- and fair enough. Other conservatives were as well, but Hagel was a particularly vocal, abrasive critic. It was not hard to sense that the unusually harsh confirmation hearing Hagel faced from his fellow Republicans had more than a touch of their enjoying the volte-face. He was caustic about them and the Administration and the press loved him for it.
Like others – including Senator John McCain – he was quite right to be critical, because the occupation was a mess. But unlike McCain, he was completely and decisively wrong about the Iraq surge, perhaps the most critical foreign policy decision during his tenure in Congress.
In 2006, Iraq teetered on the brink of genocide. With the bombing of the golden-domed Samarra Mosque in February, sectarian violence – already high – exploded. Shia death squads were cleansing Baghdad and other mixed areas of Sunnis, and Sunnis themselves were looking to Al-Qaeda for support. In Washington, the Iraq disaster had helped the antiwar Democrats win an overwhelming control of the House and Senate in the November elections.
The Army’s solution to the violence had been, to that point, doctrinaire. General George Casey, the commander of US and international forces in Iraq, had responded to the growing chaos by barricading American forces into larger and larger bases, well away from contact with Iraqis. The smart consensus was that the troops took casualties by inciting the Iraqis with their presence. They should thus minimize that presence, stay on their super-bases, focus on training Iraqi security forces, and get out fast.
By and large, professional Washington agreed with that view. The Iraq Study Group is almost forgotten now; but in 2006, it was a widely heralded commission of luminaries like Lee Hamilton and Sandra Day O’Connor, which issued a report endorsing essentially the same conclusions. The Democratic Congress, along with Chuck Hagel, agreed.
George W. Bush did not agree; and since he was president, nobody else’s opinion really mattered. In the now-famous narrative, he hired General David Petraeus, changed counterinsurgency strategies to push troops out into the villages, and sent in 30,000 more troops.
It was not an uncontroversial decision. The Democrats hated it, and so did Chuck Hagel. Loudly. In a January 2007 hearing with Condoleezza Rice, Hagel called the surge “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it’s carried out.” He later mentioned impeachment.
In the spring and summer of 2007, Congress was consumed by motions attempting to force the President to change course in Iraq. Sometimes these were resolutions to narrow the mission; sometimes they were efforts to defund the troops. Sometimes they were bills mandating DOD to keep more troops in the US. It didn’t matter. None of them passed.
During that time, of course, the surge was working. It was reducing the sectarian violence, defanging Iran and the militias, and bringing disaffected Sunni tribes back into the fold. It was doing the things that Chuck Hagel and Barack Obama had become famous by claiming that it would not do. But that didn’t matter for Hagel.
By then he was already a pasha, serving as an informal foreign affairs advisor to Obama’s campaign and even earning whispers of a Vice-Presidential slot. He lent Obama the credence of expertise, but it was an expertise built on a hollow reality: that the surge had not worked, and that Obama and Hagel’s assumptions about force and war were still valid.
In The New York Times, anonymous administration officials said that Hagel left because the mission changed. That’s true. He was hired to slash the budget, downsize the Army, and be loyal. In that, he was successful. But that mission wasn’t enough. The entire hollow consensus of Hagel, Obama, and the anti-surge stewards has been put to the test by Putin and ISIS and it has failed. The mission has indeed changed now. The question is, have they?
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