Critics are pounding President Barack Obama’s choice for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, as soft on Iran, anti-military and even anti-Semitic. This is a grotesque caricature of a man who would make a terrific defense secretary.
It’s true that Hagel harbors a healthy skepticism about deploying American troops. That’s because he also harbors shrapnel in his chest from Vietnam and appreciates the human costs when Pentagon officials move pins on maps.
In Vietnam, Hagel rescued his unconscious brother (who served in the same unit) from a troop carrier that had hit a mine. The incident left Hagel with blown eardrums, bad burns and an important take-away.
“I’m not a pacifist. I believe in using force, but only after a very careful decision-making process,” Hagel later told Vietnam magazine. “The night Tom and I were medevaced out of that village in April 1968, I told myself: If I ever get out of this and I’m ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.”
How refreshing to imagine decisions about war made by brave doves rather than by chicken hawks.
“Too often in Washington, the issue of intervention becomes an abstraction, a policy debate,” noted Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department official. “I like the idea that somebody at the table sees it in terms of people.”
Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser and doyen of serious Republican thinkers on foreign policy, told me: “I think he would be an outstanding secretary of defense.” Scowcroft noted that top officials are sometimes tempted to turn to military force “as a way of cleaning up problems quickly” without appreciating the complexities, while Hagel would be a counterweight who understands the messiness of combat.
That would be useful because America’s biggest foreign policy mistake in this new century has been overdeploying troops. Obama’s own biggest blunder was tripling the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. We have, so far, sunk $640 billion into Afghanistan and more than $800 billion into Iraq — all told, according to my calculation, more than $12,000 per U.S. household.