The Reason Why McCain Got So Mad at His Ex-Friend Hagel

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Sen. John McCain wanted one thing from his aggressive questioning of his former friend Chuck Hagel at his confirmation hearing Thursday: for Hagel to admit that McCain had been right about the Iraq surge. He did not get what he wanted. Hagel, who is likely to be confirmed as Secretary of Defense, opposed the surge, and said the Iraq war was "the most dangerous foreign policy decision since Vietnam." McCain strongly supported the surge, urging the U.S. not to give up on Iraq like it did Vietnam. So when McCain demanded to know whether Hagel thought he was right or wrong on the surge in Thursday's hearing, he was also asking who correctly applied the lessons they learned when fighting in Vietnam.

McCain and Hagel used to be good friends. They are both Republicans and Vietnam veterans. McCain campaigned for Hagel in his first race in 1996, Hagel campaigned for McCain in 2000. But their friendship fell apart over the Iraq war. Hagel was an early skeptic of the war in 2002, as The New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller reports, though he voted for the resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. Hagel was skeptical of sending a surge of troops to Iraq in 2007, while McCain strongly supported it. Hagel compared the war to Vietnam, and said in 2007, "we better be damn sure we know what we’re doing, all of us, before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder." Hagel didn't support McCain's 2008 campaign, and visited Iraq with then-Sen. Barack Obama. Sen. Lindsey Graham told the Times in December, "The Iraq war is where the policy differences became pretty difficult to deal with." One of McCain's 2008 advisers said he "takes policy disputes very, very personally."

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That was clear by their heated exchange during Thursday's confirmation hearing.

McCain: Were you right? Were you correct in your assessment? 

Hagel: Well I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out. 

McCain: This committee deserves your judgment about whether you were right or wrong regarding the surge!

Hagel: I'll explain why I made those comments…

McCain: I want to know if you were right or wrong! It's a direct question, I expect a direct answer.

Hagel: The surge assisted in the objective. But if we review the record a little bit…

McCain: Will you please answer the question. Were you correct or incorrect when you said that the surge would be 'the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam'? Where you correct or incorrect?

It went on like that for a few minutes, with Hagel refusing to concede. 

According to Graham, McCain blames their policy dispute on Hagel's experiences as a sergeant in the infantry in Vietnam, where he was wounded twice.

Mr. McCain saw Mr. Hagel’s views as wrongly colored by the brutal combat he saw as an infantryman in the jungles of Vietnam, where he was wounded twice. (Mr. McCain was shot down over Hanoi in 1967 and for the next five years was imprisoned and tortured by the North Vietnamese.) “I think he was very haunted by Vietnam,” Mr. Graham said of Mr. Hagel. Mr. McCain, he said, “doesn’t look at every conflict through the eyes of his Vietnam experience — you know, ‘We shouldn’t have been there, it went on too long, we didn’t have a plan.’ Fighting Al Qaeda is not fighting in Vietnam.”

McCain had used this analysis before, on another Republican senator wounded in war: Bob Dole. In 1996, Michael Lewis reported on This American Life:

He says, this is the McCain theory, and I think it's valid. I was an adult when I was shot down, 31 years old. I'd had a whole life. [Dole] was 19. What were you like when you were 19? I believe that everything Bob Dole has done since the war was dictated by that experience.

McCain seems to have a lot invested in being the leading interpreter of the experience of war on Capitol Hill.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.