"Are you on the wrong side of history? Yes or no please." "Has the Israel lobby ever asked an American administration to do something not in the American interest?" Of course, but how do you answer without creating an international incident? A few days ago, these questions were posed in a US Senate committee interviewing Chuck Hagel, up for a confirmation vote on his appointment as Secretary of Defense.
Mr. Hagel, a Republican, recently a U.S Senator, a decorated combat veteran, served as a sergeant in the Vietnam War. His severest critic at the hearing, Senator McCain is a son and grandson of generals, an officer with a promising career until shot down early in that war. McCain spent his war years courageously bearing the tortured lot of a celebrity prisoner of war. But Sen. Hagel, once a close friend, endorsed Obama over McCain.
The establishment critics accused Hagel of "stumbling" during seven and a half hours of testimony. Who wouldn't? Evidently, Hagel has not learned adequately Washington's smarmy way of responding to cross-examination. "Which side of history was he on?" McCain demanded to know of Hagel, "in opposing the surge in Iraq?"
Guided by Secretary Rumsfeld, in the second Iraq war, Bush II had used a minimal force in streaking to Bagdad, a sort of Patton-like, fast moving strike, on the assumption that the war could be won quickly through a take down of Saddam Hussein's government. Rumsfeld's strategy was partially right, but with Hussein gone, Iraq descended into chaos. "Insurgent" movements fought among themselves but mostly against the Americans.
General Petraeus, the man in charge, realizing this wasn't working, asked Bush for an additional 20,000 troops, a force that should have been on the ground in the first place. He diplomatically phrased his request a "surge" as if the need for these troops arose from immediate factors. At approximately the same time, Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq began to realize that the jihadist Shiite insurgent groups were opposed to the restoration of a Sunni government in Iraq. Acting on the principle that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, they began to make peace, of a sort, with the Americans, got paid and took on the Shiite forces. Did the additional 20,000 American troops ( hundreds died, thousands injured ) make the difference or did the overall improvement came about as a result of the Sunnis making peace and the huge al-Sada Shia faction's ceasefire? "Yes or no?"
Hagel, the ex-GI, opposed the surge on the grounds that an escalation of the American role in Iraq would mean more casualties. Hussein was gone. Let the Iraqis settle their own troubles. Generals and field sergeants have different perspectives.
Against this background, McCain bombarded his former friend with a demand that he answer his question, "would history judge Hagel right or wrong in opposing the surge?"
McCain forgot his West Point professors who taught him that firm historical judgments can't be made just five years after an event. Where is the "yes or no" answer to this complex question? How simple life would be if strategic questions could be answered by setting out firm, unqualified, yes or no answers. Just punch in the yesses and no's and you get your policy.
Sen. Lindsey Graham offered another question requiring a command of DC-speak : "Name one dumb thing we've been goaded into doing because of pressure from the Israeli or Jewish Lobby." The "Israeli" lobby advocates for positions of the incumbent Likud party government in Israel currently led by "Bibi" Netanyahu. A good answer to this in DC-speak might be, "Why nothing, Senator. Like most lobbies, the Israeli lobby is wasting its efforts. Members of the Senate such as yourself always vote in the national interest without regard to pressure or contributions of lobbies."
Hagel's problem is that he is an honest man, not steeped in the traditions of DC-speak and avoidance that are the tools of the establishments, left and right. Sergeant Senator Hegel is the kind of man we need to lead Defense.
John Havelock is a former Alaska attorney general. He lives in Anchorage.