WASHINGTON -- Former senator Chuck Hagel is a suave, energetic, spirited fellow. He is intelligent, and from his early youth apparently patriotic and undoubtedly courageous. He showed that in Vietnam. Hagel has been a Republican senator and an accomplished businessman. Now he is President Barack Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense. Because he is President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense he is attracting dutiful scrutiny, and that is all to the good. This is not your ordinary presidency. In domestic policy and foreign policy President Obama is showing every indication of attempting to be an epochal president (with four million fewer votes for his second term than for his first).
That is to say, he poses a distinct break from Ronald Reagan’s model of government and even from Franklin Roosevelt’s. In the economy he seems to be resurrecting the welfare state on the model of France or perhaps Spain. In foreign policy he famously promises to “lead from behind,” as illogical as that sounds. In both areas his exemplars are sure losers, but his party and his partisans seem not to have noticed.
He is going to need very cunning cabinet leaders to accomplish his goals, particularly at the State Department and Defense. At State he will have if all goes well Senator Jean-François Kerry, who, as the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto has perceptively noted, served in Vietnam. Kerry is eminently adept at leading from behind, so no problem. Is Hagel equal to the task? Actually, I think he is. He proved in his memoir published in 2006 a ready ability to juggle the facts, to mask the truth. Some call it casuistry.
I am in debt to my friend Seth Lipsky at the New York Sun for unearthing the corpus delicti. The quotes are misleading. They are meant to mislead. They leave the reader with the idea they were uttered when many had concluded that the Vietnam War was lost. Truth be known, they were uttered in May of 1964, well before LBJ even began his Vietnam buildup. Their purpose is to defame Lyndon Johnson and to discredit the Vietnam War.
Wrote Hagel in his memoir: “If you listen to the tapes released by the Johnson Library, on which President Lyndon B. Johnson and Senator Richard Russell discuss Vietnam in the mid-1960s, you will hear President Johnson confess that we couldn’t win in Vietnam, but we couldn’t pull out because he didn’t want to be the first president to lose a war.” At the time President Johnson spoke those words to Senator Russell he had not begun the Vietnam buildup or even signed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Senator Russell goes on to express his misgivings about Vietnam, but nonetheless he eventually signed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Senator Hagel concludes: “The cold political calculation I heard on those tapes made me vow that I would never -- ever -- remain silent when that kind of thinking put more American lives at risk in any conflict.”
Hagel has been unreliable on other matters. He famously said in 2002 that, “Both Israelis and Palestinians are trapped in a war not of their making.” Yet when he said that he overlooked that the Palestinians were indiscriminately slaughtering Israeli civilians. The Israeli Defense Force was defending them and fighting Palestinian militiamen. There was no equivalence.
Since those days Hagel has said many things about the “Jewish lobby” and Israel and the war on terror, but for my money I would look to his memoir first. It reveals a slipperiness of character that suggests our present would-be epochal President has chosen an eminently useful candidate to head his Department of Defense. The question is, is Hagel useful to America?