Chuck Hagel's true worth can best be measured by the enemies he has made. The people most vociferously opposed to his imminent nomination as Secretary of Defense are the neoconservatives who ginned up the disaster in Iraq - the same reckless hawks who forfeited their credibility 10 years ago.

 

Indeed, 14 months before George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the neocnos marched us into the wrong war, Hagel did what no other Republican dared to do. He warned that such an invasion would be nuts. History has since rendered its irrevocable verdict: Hagel was right, they were wrong. Yet today - probably because there is no shame in Washington - the neocons have somehow convinced themselves that they still deserve a seat at the table, that time and national amnesia have absolved them of all error.

Hagel has been under fire for weeks, ever since the Obama administration first launched him as a trial balloon. The usual suspects on the Republican right have behaved in the usual manner; in the aftermath of another lost presidential campaign, they're booing from the bleachers. Granted, some PC types on the left have assailed Hagel for an anti-gay remark that he uttered in 1998 - big deal; back in that unenlightened era, Bill Clinton signed an anti-gay law and bragged about it in ads on Christian radio stations - but the Iraq war cheerleaders have kicked up the greatest fuss.

Exhibit A, of course, is neocon icon Bill Kristol, who, despite occasional flashes of domestic wisdom (the rich should pay higher taxes), continues to bang the drum for U.S. interventionism abroad. The keyboard warrior insists that ex-soldier Hagel - a Vietnam war recipient of two Purple Hearts - is not sufficiently warlike. For instance, Kristol contended this weekend that Hagel's views on Iran are "dangerous" (in truth, Hagel has voiced skepticism that a military attack on Iran would effectively halt its nuclear program); and that Hagel has an "unpleasant distaste for Israel and Jews" (in truth, Hagel thinks that the U.S. should reserve the right to - gasp! - criticize Israel's right-wing regime when the occasion warrants).

Kristol is always a kick to read. He says that Hagel would pale in comparison to all recent Defense secretaries, including Reagan appointee Frank Carlucci. But he somehow fails to mention that Hagel has already won the endorsement of...Frank Carlucci. In a letter released last week (and co-signed by senior Bush national security adviser Brent Scowcroft), Carlucci said that Hagel "is a rare example of a public servant willing to rise above partisan politics to advance the interests of the United States."

Which is precisely what Hagel did a decade ago, when, as a Nebraska Republican senator, he bucked the partisan hawks in his own party (and the jellyfish in the Democratic party) by speaking truth to power about Iraq. His statements back in the day are proof that he's intellectually qualified to run the Pentagon.

In January 2002, he said on CNN: "I think it would be unwise and dangerous if the United States would move unilaterally against Iraq. My fundamental question is, 'What happens next if you take Saddam Hussein out, who governs? Do you let Iraq be fractured into many components?'"

In July 2002, as Kristol and the necocons - aided and abetted by Bush and Cheney - were agitating for American to avenge 9/11 by invading the wrong country, Hagel told the New York Times, "We need a national dialogue. That was a debate we didn't have with Vietnam" prior to the mid-'60s escalation.

A month later, Hagel publicly questioned the Bush White House case for war. He said the CIA had "absolutely no evidence" that Hussein possessed, or was likely to possess, any nuclear weapons.

Five years later, it was fashionable to whack Bush on Iraq - but Hagel still managed to up the ante. He remarked: "People say we're not fighting for oil. Of course we are...We're not fighting for figs."

Kristol has resurrected that Hagel quote, calling it "vulgar and disgusting." But Kristol appears to suffer from selective amnesia, because other prominent Americans have also linked oil and Iraq. For instance: "Of course it's about oil, it's very much about oil, and we can't really deny that." So said General John Abizaid, in 2007, shortly after he retired from his job as commander of the U.S. Central Command.

Hagel, who would be the first enlisted man to run the Pentagon and who still has shrapnel in his chest, will be solidly supported by the veterans' groups. I'll go out on a limb and suggest that their endorsements will be more persuasive than the bleating of neocons who are still upset that Hagel bucked them on Iraq.

Hagel will surely get cuffed around in the Senate confirmation hearings. And the neocons will naturally do what they do, as they pretend to be relevant - even though, as we well know, there's zip electoral evidence that Americans pine for a new round of U.S. military adventurism. Hagel is a threat to the neocons because he's wise to their game; and as an ex-infantry squad leader, he knows about war at ground level, where soldiers sometimes die as a consequence of excess Washington testosterone.

The president would be well served with Hagel in the loop. And this will likely occur, once the neocons are beaten and the requisite sound and fury dissipates.


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