Hagel a Hippie? Only If You Ignore His Record
By Spencer Ackerman
January 07, 2013 "Wired" -- It’s looking like President Obama will nominate former Senator Chuck Hagel to run the Pentagon on Monday. It’ll mean a fight: for the last month, conservative critics of the former Republican senator have called him a wimp, insufficiently bellicose toward Iran, Hamas, Syria, the Taliban and other global malefactors. All of that overlooks the Vietnam combat veteran’s record in the Senate.
Spying on Americans’ communications without warrants? Have at it, said Hagel. A ballistic missile shield? Yes, please, and who cares if it angers the Kremlin. NATO’s 1999 war in Kosovo? Hagel was willing to flood it with U.S. soldiers.
Hagel earned his reputation as a skeptic of American military adventurism, as anyone who remembers his consistent criticism of the Iraq war will remember. But that criticism has blown Hagel’s reputation for dovishness out of proportion: after all, he voted in 2002 to authorize the war. National Journal’s Michael Hirsch insightfully argues Hagel’s reward for asking hard questions about the war is to have official Washington forget the rest of his record. So consider this a refresher.
Even as Hagel was making himself George W. Bush’s least favorite Republican, he aided Bush in crucial moments in congressional showdowns over the limits of presidential power in wartime.
When it became public that the NSA was scooping up Americans’ communications without judicial authorization, Hagel, a member of the Senate intelligence committee, defended the NSA as striking “a very delicate balance, an important balance and an effective balance.” He advocated giving the government more spy powers through “updat[ing]” the “outdated” Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which would become one of the bitterest defeats for civil libertarians and privacy advocates of the post-9/11 era.
Hagel also played some role in sparing the Bush administration a broad congressional inquiry into the warrantless surveillance efforts. While Hagel had expressed concerns about the spy effort shortly after its December 2005 disclosure, he joined a party-line effort inside the Senate intelligence panel to block a major investigation, after Vice President Dick Cheney and White House chief of staff Andrew Card began lobbying senators. Hagel and fellow moderate Republican Olympia Snowe, “bridle[d] at suggestions that they buckled under administration heat,” but a 2006 Washington Post recreation of the episode cast them as the decisive factors in scuttling the investigation.
Months later, when one of the architects of the surveillance program, Gen. Mike Hayden, was nominated to lead the CIA, Hagel declared, “He does have my support. I think he’s the right choice.”
Hagel revealed his antipathy to civil libertarian concerns in wartime a few months after 9/11. Asked on CNN in December 2001 about trying suspected terrorists in military tribunals, Hagel replied, “first of all, are we at war or are we not at war?” If it’s truly a war, he continued, “then we are going to have to adjust some of the dynamics, if not many and most of the dynamics, of law enforcement, of judicial procedure.”
This was the same Hagel who said at the start of his Senate tenure, “When you’re in a war, you’re in a war to win.” He wasn’t talking about Iraq, Iran or Afghanistan. He was talking about NATO’s largely forgotten 1999 air war in Kosovo. The Clinton administration often found it difficult to articulate the U.S. interest at stake in Kosovo that justified the war; and the Republican Party split over intervention for humanitarian considerations. It was a prologue to the current debate over using U.S. forces to stop the bloodshed in places like Libya and Syria. Nearly alone among senators, Hagel wanted to send in the Army.
“My goodness, we’ve got a butcher loose in the backyard of NATO,” an incredulous Hagel told Tim Russert on “Meet The Press” in April 1999. NATO would lose its “credibility” if it didn’t stop Slobodan Milosevic’s slaughter in Kosovo. It’s surprising that Vietnam veteran Hagel would consider that a compelling rationale, as he wrote in his 2008 book America: Our Next Chapter that war “always must be the last alternative.” But Hagel viewed Kosovo as something of a goal-line stand. “Other nations like North Korea and Iraq are watching how we respond to this,” he told Fox News’ Brit Hume that month, “and if we don’t respond to this, Brit, we will be tested every day for the next who knows how many years.”
That meant endorsing a step the Clinton administration ultimately avoided: sending ground troops to Kosovo. “It may well take ground forces to win,” he told Russert, a step he immediately said he would support. Hagel occasionally sounded like he was raising the issue to the level of principle: “Never can you take any military option off the table when you’re dealing in a military context,” he told CNN that month. Hagel’s principal antagonist in that debate was Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate panel that could scuttle Hagel’s impending nomination.
Around the same time as the Kosovo war, Hagel was leading a charge on an issue far dearer to the Republican party’s heart: missile defense. He led a series of Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings calling for the “urgent need” to construct a continental missile shield, even if it meant tearing up a 1972 treaty with Russia inhibiting the testing of anti-ballistic missiles. (“Obsolete,” was Hagel’s description of the treaty.) Russia’s insistence that the U.S. needed to abide by the treaty annoyed Hagel: “We can’t hold America’s national security interests hostage to any threats from some other nation,” he said on CBS’ “Face The Nation” in July 2000.
Sure, the “technological piece of this is not yet in place,” Hagel conceded on the same show. But his advocacy of the missile shield sometimes looked like an article of faith: not only should U.S. missile defenses shoot down ballistic missiles, it should be “a complete system dealing with all the dynamics–chemical, biological and nuclear weapon challenges.”
And in his pursuit of the “complete” missile shield, Hagel occasionally embraced dubious assessments of adversary military prowess. “North Korea is on the verge of fielding a ballistic missile capable not only of striking my home state of Nebraska in the exact middle of the United States,” Hagel said at an April 1999 hearing, “but anywhere in the United States.” (Thirteen years later, not so much.)
Ultimately, Bush walked away from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty in December 2001, a controversial decision at the time. Hagel, who’d soon become one of Bush’s main GOP critics, gushed. “What the President did today was responsible,” Hagel told PBS. “I support it. I think it was the right thing to do.”
All this adds up to a blurrier picture of Hagel than the one offered by either his advocates or his opponents. As defense secretary, Hagel would be hugely influential in the ongoing debate over U.S. missile defenses, intervening in humanitarian emergencies and the scope of executive power in wartime. Hagel tends to emphasize the limits of American military power, something that even his critics at the Washington Post editorial board conceded was legitimate. But that doesn’t make him a dove.