Sometimes, it hurts to be right. Just ask the many skeptics of the Iraq war. In the face of fears of chemical weapons, and amid patriotic demands for action expressed everywhere from the White House, where President George W. Bush delivered his ultimatums, to suburban carports, where drivers pasted flag decals on their SUVs, some people dared to raise questions. For their courage, many were written off as troublemakers (Army General Eric Shinseki), egotists (French President Jacques Chirac), or myopic bureaucrats (United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix).
It’s surprising that, a decade later, so many of those who accurately predicted the convulsions set off by the war would still be regarded in that same light — as fundamentally off-center in their thinking. One might have assumed that having been proven right would have raised their standing. But not really. While then-backbenchers like Barack Obama, who wasn’t a national figure in 2003, were able to use their opposition to the war to build bases of support, many of those who were in the thick of the national debate are still tarred with disloyalty.
Chuck Hagel is one such case. The former Republican senator from Nebraska raised extremely prescient concerns about the Iraq War — early warnings that should have greatly enhanced his reputation as a strategic thinker. But instead many military hawks regard him with deep suspicion, as if his observations had proven to be dangerously naive. The opposite is the case. Now, as President Obama’s nominee for defense secretary, Hagel is being pilloried by the some of the same Republicans who promoted the war as a relatively cheap, easy path to a peaceful, democratic Iraq.
There may be legitimate policy questions to ask of Hagel at his confirmation hearing — about his suggestions over the years to negotiate with Hezbollah, Hamas, and Iran — even though there is nothing toxic in his record on those matters. But many of the more serious charges that neoconservatives have levied against him, such as his allegedly insufficient support for Israel, seem overblown precisely as payback for his past stance on Iraq.
Those who question Hagel’s thinking should go back and read the Landon Lecture he delivered at Kansas State University on Feb. 20, 2003, just two weeks before the start of the Iraq war. Hagel had voted in favor of authorizing the use of force to pressure Saddam Hussein to allow weapons inspections and possible disarmament. But he went on to warn in his lecture that “the uncertainties of a post-Saddam, post-conflict Middle East should give us pause, encourage prudence, and force us to recognize the necessity of coalitions in seeing it through.”
Hagel disagreed with the conventional thinking that Iraq was ripe for democracy, urging that postwar policy concentrate first on establishing economic and political stability. “We should put aside the mistaken delusion that democracy is just around the corner,” he declared. And, in the meantime, the United States needed to ramp up the Mideast peace process. “Every day that passes without active American mediation contributes to the radicalization of Palestinians and Arab politics — and the likelihood of greater terrorism visited on Israel,” he predicted.
Almost all of Hagel’s admonitions — and there were many more — proved accurate, which is even more impressive given how few people were giving voice to similar thoughts. As the years went by, his breach with the Bush administration and other Republicans grew larger. His conspicuous failure to endorse his old friend John McCain for president in 2008 understandably ruffled feathers within the GOP.
But when neoconservatives point to Hagel’s opposition to the troop surge in 2007 as proof of his faulty judgment — so faulty as to raise questions about his ability to serve as defense secretary — one can’t help but wonder what they themselves were saying back in 2003, when Hagel delivered the Landon Lecture. If George W. Bush had followed Hagel’s advice, rather than the neocons’, there would have been no need for a troop surge four years later. As a decorated combat veteran, successful cellphone entrepreneur, and two-term senator with a spotless record for integrity, Hagel deserves more respect than he’s getting from his own party.