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Behind the Hagel bashing, real differences on security policy

The Hagel hearing was just the latest episode in an ongoing effort by Sen. John McCain to assert his ownership of U.S. national security policy.

Hagel is something of a skeptic on the use of military power.
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

What we saw when Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, mugged former Sen. Chuck Hagel last week at a hearing on Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense was just the latest episode in an ongoing effort by McCain to assert his ownership of U.S. national security policy. Also exposed were deep fault lines about matters of war and peace that date back to Vietnam, a war in which both these gentlemen served honorably but about which they reached very different conclusions.

The casus belli last week was McCain’s insistence that Hagel admit he was wrong in calling the 2007 surge in Iraq a bad idea. McCain considers the surge his creation and a historic success, so he went ballistic when Hagel said he’d wait for history to assess its merits. Though Hagel’s overall performance at the hearing was less than stellar, he was on solid ground in suggesting that history’s verdict, on the surge as well as on the Iraq war itself, may not be nearly so favorable as McCain believes.

Differing views on uses of military power

Behind last week’s fistfight between two ex-colleagues was fundamental disagreement about the uses of military power. McCain is a true believer, Hagel something of a skeptic. McCain remains convinced we would have won militarily in Vietnam if voters back home had not lost their faith and politicians their nerve. Hagel’s foxhole view was otherwise: that our overwhelming military power was alienating rather than winning Vietnamese hearts and minds; he concluded that such might has its limits and cannot solve problems that are inherently political.  

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McCain’s instinct is to use or threaten military force wherever he sees freedom or democracy threatened – Iraq, Afghanistan, but also Georgia, Libya, Syria, Iran – and he bristles when his point of view does not carry the day.

Before Hagel, McCain’s target was U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. After the tragic killing of our ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi in September, McCain and others, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney, pilloried Rice for failing to call the incident terrorism from the get-go. In frustration about the ongoing focus on the labeling issue during her own recent testimony about Benghazi, Secretary of State Clinton, blurted out, “What difference does it make?”   

Rice as proxy for Obama policies

It seems a fair question. It is indeed difficult to see much point to the McCain-led demand for Rice’s scalp except as part of a quest to tag President Obama and his administration as soft on terrorism in particular and national security in general. It’s tough to make such a case against the people who got Bin Laden.

In the end, Rice withdrew from consideration for secretary of state and Sen. John Kerry, who arguably was the better choice all along, got the nod. Since Kerry was virtually invulnerable, McCain turned his fire to his fellow veteran and Republican, Chuck Hagel.

It won’t end there. The next secretary of defense, whether Hagel or someone else, will have to defend Obama administration plans to reduce weapons rather than health-care benefits; to leave Afghanistan on schedule;  and to give priority to diplomacy instead of military intervention in moving to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. McCain and his posse will likely fight all those decisions and others, for reasons of philosophy as well as ego.  

Meanwhile, the campaign to portray Benghazi as part of some wider failure gets in the way of an objective analysis of what took place there and how to reduce the chances it will happen again.  Benghazi was not a consulate or an established diplomatic post but rather a private residence converted into a temporary, provisional outpost used mainly for keeping tabs on a collection of militant groups. We do not traditionally invest big bucks into fortifying such short-term spots, nor would the Republican Party, or American taxpayers, like paying such bills.  

Perennial diplomatic issue

Trying to do their jobs while avoiding undue risks is a circle Foreign Service Officers like Ambassador Stephens try to square every day. You can’t learn what makes a militant tick by riding around in multi-car motorcades or hunkering down behind heavily guarded fortresses.   Being told to put your finger on the pulse but stay safe is akin to the baseball manager who warned his pitcher not to give the batter anything to hit – but not to walk him either.

This was the context for Benghazi. To blame the ambassador for venturing into dangerous territory or toss brickbats at senior officials for not doing enough to ensure his safety is something we should all recognize as Monday morning quarterbacking. It rings hollow coming from those who consistently deny adequate funding for diplomacy and development work in troubled twilight areas. Trillions to fight our wars, but peanuts to try to prevent them.   

Dick Virden is a retired Foreign Service Officer and, like McCain, a graduate of the National War College. He currently serves as a diplomat in residence at St. John’s University and the College of St. Benedict.   

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