In the bitter debate that led up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said that some of his fellow Republicans, in their zest for war, lacked the perspective of veterans like him, who have “sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off.”
Those Republicans in turn called him an “appeaser” whose cautious geopolitical approach dangerously telegraphed weakness in the post-Sept. 11 world.
The campaign now being waged against Mr. Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense is in some ways a relitigation of that decade-old dispute. It is also a dramatic return to the public stage by the neoconservatives whose worldview remains a powerful undercurrent in the Republican Party and in the national debate about the United States’ relationship with Israel and the Middle East.
To Mr. Hagel’s allies, his presence at the Pentagon would be a very personal repudiation of the interventionist approach to foreign policy championed by the so-called Vulcans in the administration of President George W. Bush, who believed in pre-emptive strikes against potential threats and the promotion of democracy, by military means if necessary.
“This is the neocons’ worst nightmare because you’ve got a combat soldier, successful businessman and senator who actually thinks there may be other ways to resolve some questions other than force,” said Richard L. Armitage, who broke with the more hawkish members of the Bush team during the Iraq war when he was a deputy to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
William Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard, who championed the Iraq invasion and is leading the opposition to Mr. Hagel’s nomination, says the former senator and his supporters are suffering from “neoconservative derangement syndrome.”
Mr. Kristol said he and other like-minded hawks were more concerned about Mr. Hagel’s occasional arguments against sanctions (he voted against some in the Senate), what they deem as his overcautious attitudes about military action against Iran and his tougher approach to Israel than they were about his views on Iraq – aside from his outspoken opposition to the American troop surge there that was ultimately deemed successful.
Mr. Kristol’s latest editorial argues that Mr. Hagel’s statement that he is an unequivocal supporter of Israel is “nonsense,” given his reference in a 2006 interview to a “Jewish lobby” that intimidates lawmakers into blindly supporting Israeli positions.
“I’d much prefer a secretary of defense who was a more mainstream internationalist – not a guy obsessed by how the United States uses its power and would always err on the side of not intervening,” he added. Of Mr. Hagel and his allies, Mr. Kristol said, “They sort of think we should have just gone away.”
In fact, the neoconservatives have done anything but disappear. In the years since the war’s messy end, the most hawkish promoters have maintained enormous sway within the Republican Party, holding leading advisory posts in both the McCain and Romney presidential campaigns as their counterparts in the “realist” wing of the party, epitomized by Mr. Powell, gravitated toward Barack Obama.
And while members of both parties think the chances are good that Mr. Hagel will win confirmation, the neoconservatives are behind some of the most aggressive efforts to derail it, through television advertisements, op-ed articles in prominent publications and pressure on Capitol Hill, where some Democrats, including Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, have also indicated reservations.
Their prominence in the fight over Mr. Hagel’s nomination is testament to their continued outsize voice in the public debate, helped by outlets like The Weekly Standard, research groups like the American Enterprise Institute and wealthy Republican financiers like the casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, whose nearly $100 million in political donations last year were driven largely by his interest in Israel. The Republican Jewish Coalition, on whose board of directors Mr. Adelson sits, was among the first to criticize the Hagel nomination.
The most outspoken among them had leading roles in developing the rationale and, in some cases, the plan for invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein.
One critic is Elliott Abrams, a national security adviser to Mr. Bush during the Iraq war who pleaded guilty in the Iran-contra scandal to withholding information from Congress. He called Mr. Hagel an anti-Semite who has “some kind of problem with Jews” in an interview on NPR last week. (The Council on Foreign Relations, where Mr. Abrams is a senior fellow, distanced itself from his comments.)
The Emergency Committee for Israel, a conservative group, has run a TV advertisement and has a Web site calling Mr. Hagel an inappropriate choice for the Defense Department, citing some of his votes against sanctions on Iran and Libya and his calls to engage in direct talks with groups like Hamas. Its donors have included the activist financier Daniel S. Loeb, and Mr. Abrams’s wife, Rachel, serves on its board.
And of course, there is Mr. Kristol himself, who in the late 1990s helped form a group called the Project for a New American Century. In 1998, the organization released a letter to President Bill Clinton arguing that Saddam Hussein posed a potential nuclear threat to the United States, Israel and moderate Arab states and should be ousted.
It was signed by several future members of the Bush national security team: Donald H. Rumsfeld, who served as defense secretary; Paul D. Wolfowitz, who served under Mr. Rumsfeld; Mr. Abrams; and outsider advisers, including Richard N. Perle, a former chairman of the Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee; and Mr. Armitage. Serving as a research associate was Michael Goldfarb, who is helping to direct the Emergency Committee for Israel’s attacks against Mr. Hagel.
Around the same time in the late 1990s, Mr. Hagel was allied with Mr. Kristol and other hawks calling for the commitment of ground troops in support of the Clinton administration’s intervention in Kosovo. Mr. Kristol went so far as to suggest Mr. Hagel as a potential running mate for Mr. Bush in 2000, calling him an “impressive and attractive first-term senator.”
Their relationship broke with Mr. Hagel’s criticism of the Iraq war, and his rare status as a Congressional Republican critical of the intervention led to plentiful TV bookings and the antipathy of the war’s architects and supporters. Besides being a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Hagel had added cachet by way of two Purple Hearts from his service in Vietnam, which left shrapnel embedded in his chest and, he has said, a unique perspective on war.
“Here was a Republican with national security credentials saying that the Republican president was being irresponsible on national security – that’s potent,” said Kenneth L. Adelman, a member of the Defense Policy Review Board at the time and a frequent sparring partner with Mr. Hagel on television. “It drove me up the wall not so much that he was Republican, because I didn’t care that much from a political point of view – I thought the substance of his arguments were just wrong and unfounded.”
Mr. Hagel’s earliest concerns arose before the Congressional vote authorizing the use of force. “You can take the country into a war pretty fast,” he said in an interview with The New York Times in 2002, “but you can’t get us out as quickly, and the public needs to know what the risks are.” In the interview, he took a swipe at Mr. Perle, then one of the most visible promoters of the war, saying, “Maybe Mr. Perle would like to be in the first wave of those who go into Baghdad.”
Mr. Perle had never served in the military. Along with Mr. Hagel’s comment in Newsweek that many of the war’s most steadfast proponents “don’t know anything about war,” his criticism prompted a national discussion about “chicken hawks,” a derisive term for those advocating war with no direct experience of it. And his comments drew a rebuke from The Weekly Standard that Mr. Hagel was part of an “axis of appeasement.”
Mr. Hagel’s words appear to sting to this day. “Normally you hope your cabinet officers don’t resort to ad hominem argument,” said Mr. Perle, who is now a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. In an interview, he said his opposition to the nomination stemmed from his fear that Mr. Hagel was among those who “so abhor the use of force that they actually weaken the diplomacy that enables you to achieve results without using force.”
Yet Mr. Hagel did ultimately vote to give Mr. Bush the authority to go to war. He has said that he did so to give the administration diplomatic leverage and that he now regrets it. Explaining his vote on the floor of the Senate, he warned, “We should not be seduced by the expectations of ‘dancing in the streets’ after Saddam’s regime has fallen.”
If Mr. Hagel’s call for caution seems prescient, several opponents have argued that his prediction that the 2006 troop surge would fail was not – a position sure to come up frequently as confirmation hearings get closer.