In his journey from conservative Republican to de facto Democrat, Chuck Hagel advocated several fundamental foreign policy positions while in the Senate that have not survived the test of history, an examination of his statements shows.
Mr. Hagel, who retired from the Senate in 2008 and now is a leading candidate to be President Obama’s next defense secretary, became a robust critic of President George W. Bush and the Iraq War in 2005.
As his attacks on Mr. Bush escalated into a broad indictment of the administration’s foreign policy, the Nebraskan formed an alliance with Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden, John F. Kerry and Barack Obama, all but endorsing the latter for president.
Now, Republican opposition to his possible nomination is mounting over his stances on Iraq, Iran and Israel.
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday, Mr. Obama defended Mr. Hagel but said he had not picked whom he would nominate to replace Leon E. Panetta as defense secretary.
“I’ve served with Chuck Hagel. I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work in the United States Senate,” Mr. Obama said. “Somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who’s currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job.”
By 2008, Mr. Hagel had declared his allegiance to the foreign policy beliefs of now-Vice President Biden, who at one time called for Iraq to be split into three parts and opposed Mr. Bush’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq.
Among the Senate’s 100 members, Mr. Hagel was the one who unleashed the most damning assessment after the president went on TV to announce the surge in 2007.
“I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam,” Mr. Hagel said on the Senate floor.
Yet today, even war critics acknowledge that the surge of U.S. troops, far from a historic blunder, turned the tide of battle.
Putting more forces into Iraqi neighborhoods near civilians reduced overall violence and allowed Mr. Obama to pull out all forces in 2011 with the hope that a democratic Baghdad would survive. The troop-exit schedule was negotiated by the Bush administration.
Mr. Biden, a surge naysayer like Mr. Obama, declared after a year as vice president that Iraq “could be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government.”
In 2009, Mr. Obama kicked off his administration with two major foreign policy initiatives advocated by Mr. Hagel: an invitation to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program and a tour of Muslim countries to repudiate the war policies of Mr. Bush.
It is Mr. Hagel’s views toward the Islamic extremists who run Iran that have stirred conservatives and pro-Israel groups to oppose him for defense secretary.
In his last two years in the Senate, Mr. Hagel used several forums to advocate talking to Iran with no strings attached: “I urge you to consider pursuing direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks with the Government of Iran,” Mr. Hagel said in a 2007 letter to Mr. Bush.
His remarks on Iran generally excluded any criticism about the regime itself, did not endorse a military option to keep Tehran from building nuclear weapons and did not mention economic sanctions as an effective tool in persuading the regime to change its behavior.
On talk shows, he dismissed Mr. Bush’s position that Iran must heed a demand from the United Nations that it stop enriching uranium before direct discussions could happen.
Mr. Hagel called it a “diplomatic cul-de-sac we find ourselves in with Iran on our insistence, the U.S. insistence and our allies that preconditions be met before we will talk to you. And the Iranians have said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’”
At another public forum, he said: “We are afraid to talk with someone or we apply preconditions like it’s a great privilege to talk to the United States. That’s not diplomacy.”
On the Middle East
The historical record at this point shows that Mr. Obama’s olive branch to Tehran was a failure.
The administration sent a diplomatic message to Tehran saying direct, no-strings talks were possible. Weeks later, Mr. Obama sent a video to the people of Iran and its leaders calling for “engagement” and a “new beginning.”
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei rejected the overture and berated the United States. There have been no direct talks in Mr. Obama’s first term.
In the Senate, where Mr. Hagel worked against additional sanctions on Iran, the mainstream position among Republicans and Democrats today is that the Islamic republic is moving closer to developing nuclear weapons and more sanctions are needed. Senators voted 94-0 in November to impose additional sanctions in the form of financial penalties on businesses involved in Iran’s energy and shipping sectors.
As senator, Mr. Hagel cited polls that showed America’s unpopularity in the Muslim world as a further indictment of the Bush administration.
Mr. Obama conducted a tour of the Middle East, absent Israel, in 2009 to criticize American foreign policy before Muslim audiences.
Yet America’s standing among Muslims worldwide has dropped sharply since Mr. Obama took office, according to a poll this year by the Pew Research Center. The poll found that only 15 percent of those surveyed in Muslim-dominated countries view the U.S. favorably, down from 25 percent in 2009 in a Pew poll. Approval of Mr. Obama’s foreign policies dropped from 34 percent to 15 percent.
Also during his first year as president, Mr. Obama was critical of Israel amid new flare-ups with the Hamas terrorist group that governs the Gaza Strip or with other Arab adversaries. His words followed closely the views of Mr. Hagel, who once remarked as a senator, “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”
By his last year in the Senate, Mr. Hagel had become a de facto Democrat. He traveled with Mr. Obama to Iraq during his presidential campaign, and on returning to Washington, he defended the Democratic candidate and criticized the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Since leaving office, Mr. Hagel has endorsed Democrats running for the Senate.
Mr. Hagel’s constant criticism of Mr. Bush made him a celebrity among Washington’s news media.
In a 2007 solo appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations, The Washington Post’s Robert Kaiser prompted him to label Mr. Bush one of the worst presidents ever.
Mr. Hagel complied.
“This is one of the most arrogant, incompetent administrations I’ve ever seen personally or ever read about,” he told the crowd of journalists and former government officials.
Bush supporters today point out that Mr. Obama, while criticizing Mr. Bush as a war leader, has embraced many of his key counterterrorism policies conceived after the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on America, such as the USA Patriot Act and the authority to use force against terrorists, Predator drone strikes on al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan and Yemen, the terrorist surveillance operation to intercept cellphone and email communications that pass through the U.S., a bank finance tracking program, the enlargement of special operations forces to hunt down extremists worldwide, and the legal principle that the U.S. can hold terrorism suspects indefinitely.
Detractors and defenders
Mr. Hagel’s views on Iran, Iraq and Israel, and his unconditional criticism of Mr. Bush have spurred opposition to him taking the helm at the Pentagon.
The new year may well present Mr. Obama with a key decision on Iran’s atomic program, given remarks by Israeli leaders, who have a plan for bombing the regime’s nuclear facilities. As defense secretary, Mr. Hagel would be one of the president’s chief advisers.
“Were Chuck Hagel to be nominated as secretary of defense, the Iranian mullahs would interpret President Obama’s decision as a signal that the military option was now, effectively, off the table,” lawyer Alan Dershowitz wrote in National Review. “It would encourage them to proceed with their development of nuclear weapons without fear of an attack from the United States.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, sees few Republican votes for Mr. Hagel’s Senate confirmation.
“I like Chuck. But his positions, I didn’t really frankly know all of them, are really out of the mainstream, and well to the left of the president,” Mr. Graham told “Meet the Press.” I’ve got questions about Chuck’s view of Iran, the situation with Hamas and Hezbollah, his position toward Israel. I want to hear what he has to say. But very troubling comments by a future secretary of defense.”
The left has come to Mr. Hagel’s defense.
The New Yorker magazine elevated Mr. Hagel to victim status, and portrayed him as being unfairly skewered by deranged Republicans.
“They have drawn a caricature of a supposedly anti-Semitic, terrorist-coddling, Iran-appeasing, unilaterally disarming, wildly liberal malcontent,” wrote senior editor Amy Davidson. “It hardly seems to matter to them that none of those things are true. But what’s becoming clearest in this fight isn’t anything about Hagel, but the derangement of the Republican Party, to use what may soon be an obsolete term for a movement in a state of sour disorder.”
Four former White House national security advisers endorsed Mr. Hagel in a letter to The Washington Post.
“He is a rare example of a public servant willing to rise above partisan politics to advance the interests of the United States and its friends and allies,” they said. “Moreover, it is damaging to the quality of our civic discourse for prospective Cabinet nominees to be subjected to such vicious attacks on their character before an official nomination.”
The letter was signed by James Jones (Obama), Brent Scowcroft (George H.W. Bush), Zbigniew Brzezinski (Jimmy Carter) and Frank Carlucci (Ronald Reagan).
Mr. Hagel serves as chairman of the Atlantic Council, a group of former officials and foreign policy analysts that works to enhance U.S. security through global cooperation.
He fought in Vietnam as an enlisted infantryman and was awarded two Purple Hearts.
Earlier this month, Mr. Hagel sought to head off opposition from gay-rights advocates by repudiating his comment as a freshman senator in 1998 that ambassadorial nominee James Hormel was “openly, aggressively gay.”
“My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive,” Mr. Hagel said. “They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender] Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights.”
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