Is Chuck Hagel a Pacifist?

The former GOP senator, a possible Obama nominee to run the Pentagon, is haunted by Vietnam.

Richard Bloom

Chuck Hagel is, by his own admission, haunted by Vietnam. When asked to explain his early opposition to George W. Bush's 2003 Iraq invasion in an interview in 2011, the former Nebraska senator harked back to his experience as an Army private fighting the Tet offensive in 1968. That maverick stance cost Hagel his reputation as a leading Republican, and it may be one reason why President Obama is now considering him as his next Defense secretary, with Leon Panetta set to retire. "We sent home almost 16,000 body bags that year," Hagel told me. "And I always thought to myself, 'If I get through this, if I have the opportunity to influence anyone, I owe it to those guys to never let this happen again to the country.' "

When Obama mounted a Bush-like "surge" in Afghanistan in 2009, Hagel wasn't happy either. "I'm not sure we know what the hell we are doing in Afghanistan," Hagel told me in 2010. "It's not sustainable at all. I think we're marking time as we slaughter more young people." Hagel had also opposed the surge in Iraq. In a dramatic moment on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2007, Hagel implored his fellow Republicans to stop avoiding the truth about what he called the futile "grinder" of Iraq, and asked them not to send in more troops. "Don't hide anymore; none of us!" Hagel declared, raising his voice. Although several Republicans expressed misgivings, in the end only Hagel voted in favor of the nonbinding resolution.

All of which raises a question: Is Chuck Hagel a pacifist? Hagel, a warrior who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, would say certainly not. And he can lay claim to a certain amount of prescience; like Obama himself, who first came to national renown in 2002 by speaking against the planned Iraq invasion as a "dumb war," Hagel saw earlier than most in Washington the pitfalls of launching a new war (Iraq) in the middle of an ongoing one (Afghanistan). "Many of those who want to rush this country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don't know anything about war," he told me in the summer of 2002. "They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off. I try to speak for those ghosts of the past a little bit."

Michele Flournoy, the former under secretary of Defense who is also a leading candidate to replace Panetta, is also somewhat haunted by the ghosts of Vietnam, by her own account, but in a very different way. Though far too young (she turned 52 on Friday) to have served there with the 66-year-old Hagel, Flournoy warned in a speech this week that military planners might still be too "risk-averse" because of the Vietnam experience. She said the military was endangered by a new "Vietnam syndrome" in which planners might seek to avoid the lessons of counterinsurgency and guerrilla warfare simply because the last decade of this kind of conflict has been so costly in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At a time when Hagel was worried about the cost of the Afghan surge in body bags, Flournoy was promoting the idea as a leading supporter of counterinsurgency strategy in 2009. During this period, a fierce debate occurred inside the Obama administration over whether to pare down the U.S. presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan to mere "counterterror operations"--the position taken by Vice President Joe Biden, a longtime Hagel ally--or whether to mount a larger counterinsurgency or "hearts-and-minds," nation-building-type war. After leaving the Pentagon, Flournoy took over the Center for a New American Security, a think tank known for its work in counterinsurgency policy.

Yet Flournoy is no neocon hawk, says her former Pentagon aide, Janine Davidson. "She knows what battles to choose," says Davidson, who worked as deputy assistant secretary for plans under Flournoy. "She's very pragmatic about the application of military in an engagement and prevention role.... [I] think she has a very grounded sense of what America's role in the world should be should be and how the military should support that role."

Hagel's blunt views on Iraq and Afghanistan are a reminder that, if Obama is hoping to look bipartisan in naming a Republican to a top post, he's not limiting himself to those in good standing with the GOP. Hagel, who was once seen as a potential Republican presidential nominee, became persona non grata inside the party after his opposition to Iraq and never regained his standing. Nor has he ever let up in his criticism of what he called "mad, wild dash into Iraq," which he blamed on "the lack of any clear strategic critical thinking" about the causes of 9/11. "I think when history is written of this 10-year period, it will record the folly of great-power overreach," he said in 2011.

In the end, if Hagel is chosen, his views may be more in tune with the American public's--and Obama's. The American public is clearly war-weary. According to a new Pew poll, only about a quarter of Americans (27 percent) say the U.S. has a responsibility to do something about the fighting in Syria, while more than twice as many (63 percent) say it does not.

Yet Hagel's blunt criticism of the Afghan surge, which has already been wound down (some 68,000 pre-surge U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan), would put him directly at odds with the president he would serve. In a 2010 interview, he also criticized the president's decision to send in additional armor with the troops. "It's a huge mistake to get bogged down with over 100,000 American troops. And this latest decision to bring in armor, that's astounding to me at a time when we're trying to work our way out. When you sink in a battalion of armor, sophisticated tanks, you're going in deeper. You're not getting out. The optics of that go back to Vietnam. When people see tanks in their country, they think occupation. That's not something that's winnable."