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Behind the Hagel bashing, real differences on security policy

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

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.  

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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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by rolf westgard on 02/05/2013 - 05:10 am.

    The penalty for telling the truth

    Most of the Hagel bashing was about Israel, with Iraq and Afghanistan next. Hagel realizes that invading Iraq and the inevitable surge were complete madness which sent McCain into orbit.

    Rightly or wrongly, most of the world regards Israel as running a kind of concentration camp for Palestinians with the active support of the US. But any politician who dares mention this is immediately denounced as an anti-Semitic racist. Read today’s editorial in the NY Times on this subject.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/05/2013 - 08:08 am.

    McCain has descended into semi-senile crankdom.

    Adding more troops for a year or two had some effect at the time, as no-one doubted then. But “winning the war” required the building of a stable, inclusive Iraq government and more US troops could not do that.

    Stick a knife in a bucket of water, and there are ripples–remove it and it’s as if it was never there.

    The same pre-surge issues remain and are being played out now every day with guns and bombs.

    A “success” should last longer than it takes for the US military to leave a country.

  3. Submitted by Bill Davnie on 02/05/2013 - 09:21 am.

    McCain v. Hagel

    One wonders if one source of the difference in perspectives on the use of force is the fact that McCain was an Air Force pilot, and Hagel an actual participant in ground combat with an often unidentifiable enemy. Without in any way demeaning McCain’s endurance as a POW, the Air Force experiences war very differently than do ground forces, and has a much higher confidence in the effectiveness of airstrikes, that military history supports. Bombing campaigns in WWII Germany, the former Yugoslavia, and Vietnam never were truly successful, while our current use of drones creates many enemies as it picks off a few.

  4. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 02/05/2013 - 10:45 am.

    McCain v. Hagel entertaining, but not the real issue

    The real issues here are best posed as questions:

    Our military is used as the primary, most essential tool of foreign policy. What has this achieved for our country ? What has it COST our country ? What would a WISE foreign policy look like for the U.S.?

    If we had never lifted a finger of intervention in Vietnam, never sent a single soldier nor dropped a single bomb, it seems to me Vietnam would most likely be in roughly similar circumstances to those we see today. However, there would be no history of physical, social and emotional damage to generations of Vietnamese caused by we Americans. There would be less effect of a lasting distrust of our foreign policy in the region.

    The fallout continues today in Vietnam’s high rate of birth defects due to the massive amount of chemicals we sprayed on the country from the air.

    We call it the Vietnam War. THEY call it the American War.

    What are the REAL reasons we invaded Iraq ? The publicly spoken reason was obviously false. The Bush administration’s lame dissemblance afterwards that “the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein” would be laughable if so many had not died for it.

    We need a new foreign policy, or at least one that doesn’t lead to these kinds of follies.

  5. Submitted by myles spicer on 02/05/2013 - 01:20 pm.

    At the bottom of this

    …is the lack of civility, restraint, and respect we now see in recent Congresses (as I described in my Community Voices of 1/30). And, it has all made Congress more disfunctional, and created a lack of positive leadership in running our nation.

  6. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 02/06/2013 - 10:45 pm.

    McCain, soon to be late night comedic fodder.

    McCain is struggling to become relevant. He is losing his battle. Each time he tries he becomes more of an old, uninformed, out of touch bully. For a guy in a party that needs to gain voter share he is not trying very hard to gain ground. He is busy with his personal vendettas. McCain proved, during his unsuccessful presidential campaign, how poor a leader he is. He has low respect for the electorate as evidenced by him dropping Sarah Palin on us, and he is still defending her. He is totally unable to admit when he is wrong. He must be careful or he will soon turn into late night comedic fodder.

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