The New Yorker published an article today on the future of Republican Senator Chuck Hagel and his opinion on Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as the GOP pick for vice presidential candidate, as well as his disappointment with the presidential campaign of Arizona Senator John McCain.
In early June, Senators Chuck Hagel and John McCain met in Hagel’s office on Capitol Hill. McCain, the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee, considered Hagel–a fellow-Republican and the senior senator from Nebraska–among his closest friends in Congress. Six months earlier, in December, 2007, McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, had asked Hagel to endorse McCain and campaign with him in the upcoming primaries. Hagel had demurred. …
Hagel skipped the Republican Convention, choosing instead to go, with two aides, on a fact-finding trip to Latin America. He did hear McCain’s speech, which, in its evocation of the need to bridge a disabling partisan divide, echoed the theme of his discussion with McCain in their meeting in June. But, Hagel said, he’s been “very disappointed” by McCain’s campaign. “He gave one unifying speech and then has spent fifty million dollars to destroy his opponent.” Hagel may be the only senior Republican elected official who has publicly criticized McCain’s choice of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. “I don’t believe she’s qualified to be President of the United States,” Hagel told me. “The first judgment a potential President makes is who their running mate is–and I don’t think John made a very good selection.” He scoffed at McCain’s attempts to portray her as an experienced politician. “To try to make the excuse that she looks out her window and sees Russia–and that she’s commander of the Alaska National Guard.” He added, “There is no question that this candidate is arguably the thinnest-résumé candidate for Vice-President in the history of America.”
In early June, Senators Chuck Hagel and John McCain met in Hagel’s office on Capitol Hill. McCain, the presumptive Republican Presidential nominee, considered Hagel-a fellow-Republican and the senior senator from Nebraska-among his closest friends in Congress. Six months earlier, in December, 2007, McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, had asked Hagel to endorse McCain and campaign with him in the upcoming primaries. Hagel had demurred. Even after McCain became the presumptive nominee, in March, Hagel, asked repeatedly on the Sunday-morning talk shows whether he was going to endorse him, remained noncommittal.
In Washington, the men’s friendship was well known, and unsurprising. Both were hard-driving, politically conservative, hot-tempered, and humorous. They had served in Vietnam and were known as independent thinkers, averse to Party orthodoxy. And although they could be self-deprecating, they had a penchant for righteousness that did not endear them to many colleagues. McCain had campaigned in Nebraska for Hagel in 1996, during Hagel’s first Senate race, which he won in an upset against Ben Nelson, the former Nebraska governor (and current Democratic senator). A photograph in Hagel’s office shows him newly elected, with the five other senators who were Vietnam veterans: McCain, Bob Kerrey, Chuck Robb, John Kerry, and Max Cleland, who lost both legs and an arm in the war. Cleland, seated in a wheelchair, has made a joke, which they all seem to be enjoying. But Hagel and McCain didn’t become close until, about a year and a half later, McCain read a story about Hagel and the Nebraska gubernatorial race in Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper. As the article recounted, Jon Christensen, the onetime front-runner in the 1998 Republican primary, had attacked his opponent with a harsh negative mailer in the final days before the election. Hagel and other Party officials in Nebraska, who had said that they would remain neutral, scolded Christensen and declared that his tactics “embarrassed Nebraska.” Christensen lost by a large margin. The story quoted Hagel as saying, “The most dangerous element of our political future in this country is candidates who debase and degrade the political process by straight-out lies and misleading spots on television. It’s a cancer to our system.” Hagel told me that McCain came to his office to talk to him about the article and said, “You know, I’m really proud of you for doing that. Not many people would have done it.”
In 2000, when McCain first ran for President, Hagel was one of only four senators who endorsed him, and he became co-chair of the McCain campaign. McCain lost in the South Carolina primary after evangelicals led by Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed rallied the Christian right to George W. Bush. A smear campaign in the state suggested that McCain had fathered Bridget, the Bangladeshi orphan he and his wife, Cindy, adopted in 1993. Hagel declared that Bush had “sold his soul to the right wing” and called Bush’s campaign “the filthiest” he had ever seen. McCain was invited to speak at the 2000 Republican National Convention, and Hagel was allotted three minutes for the introduction. Moments before he was to walk onstage, a member of Bush’s team told him that he would have only ninety seconds. Hagel excoriated the man with a ferocity that McCain would have appreciated-and he delivered his three-minute speech.
After September 11, 2001, differences in Hagel’s and McCain’s views on foreign policy became sharper, and more consequential. Hagel, a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, is an ardent internationalist-“All of us are touched by every event that unfolds in every corner of the world,” he often says. An advocate for a strong military, he also believes that military force should be the last tool of statecraft. McCain has an almost religious belief in American exceptionalism and the merits of using military force to protect the nation’s interests and promote its values. (“Whatever sacrifices you must bear,” he told young men and women at the U.S. Naval Academy, in October, 2001, “you will know a happiness far more sublime than pleasure.”) In the months after the September 11th attacks, he became an enthusiastic promoter of war in Iraq. In early January, 2002, as warplanes took off for Afghanistan, McCain stood on the flight bridge of the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, and yelled, “Next up, Baghdad!” Hagel, who was on the trip with the same congressional delegation, told a reporter, “I think it would be wrong, very shortsighted, and very dangerous for the United States to unilaterally move on Iraq.”
Despite misgivings about the Bush Administration’s buildup to war-misgivings that Hagel aired repeatedly in public-he voted for the October, 2002, war resolution. (He has since said that he regrets his vote.) On the Senate floor, he declared, “Actions in Iraq must come in the context of an American-led, multilateral approach to disarmament, not as the first case for a new American doctrine involving the preëmptive use of force.” He also expressed fear about what he calls “the uncontrollables”-the unpredictable consequences of military action-and about America’s limited knowledge of the Middle East. “How many of us really know and understand Iraq, the country, the history, the people, and the role in the Arab world?” he asked. “The American people must be told of this long-term commitment, risk, and cost of this undertaking. We should not be seduced by the expectations of dancing in the streets.” In September, 2004, he called the situation in Iraq “beyond pitiful.” Senator John Kerry, in a debate with President Bush in the 2004 campaign, quoted Hagel’s comment, which rankled Hagel’s Republican colleagues. Hagel has frequently described the Administration’s “war on terror” as ill-conceived sloganeering and has argued that, in addition to fighting terrorism, we must fight the poverty and despair that enable terrorism to flourish. In a committee hearing in early 2007, he denounced the Bush Administration’s proposed “surge” strategy, which McCain strongly supported, as “the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”
Nevertheless, he and McCain have remained friends, Hagel told me in a series of interviews over the past several months. “That’s the problem with Washington, quite frankly-if you disagree with somebody, you should dislike them, too,” said Hagel, who is sixty-two and has white hair, a worn, ruggedly handsome face, and a forthright manner. “It’s hard, it seems, for some people to comprehend how John and I can be on such different paths on something so important, and still fundamentally have a relationship that’s pretty deep.” (McCain’s campaign declined to comment for this article.)
McCain no doubt understood how difficult it would be for Hagel to endorse him, yet their differences were what would make the endorsement so valuable. From 2004 on, McCain, in his desire to win the nomination, had embraced Bush’s policies ever more zealously, while Hagel had become the Administration’s most severe Republican critic. Although he has frequently voted with his party on domestic policy, his views on foreign policy represent a bold departure from those of the Administration, and his willingness to take Bush to task publicly has alienated many Republicans. In some ways, Hagel is far more of a maverick than McCain has ever been, and his endorsement would likely sway independents whose votes McCain probably needs in order to win.
Hagel said of their meeting in June, “It never was an interview kind of thing-‘John, let me get these things straight.’ ” Rather, he explained, “I wanted to understand, too, as we talked through these things, where he was going. . . . We talked about Iraq, and he and I disagree on this.” They also discussed McCain’s argument that Senator Barack Obama, the Democratic Presidential nominee, was wrong to pursue direct engagement with Iranian leaders. “And I said, ‘I don’t think he is. It’s what I’ve been saying, actually longer than Obama.’ I remember telling John-I said, ‘John, if you don’t engage Iran, where do you think this is going to go? We’re going to be in another war!’ ” (Hagel has been calling for direct, unconditional talks with Iran since 2001.)
Hagel says that he told McCain that he believed the election would be close, and he warned against waging a vicious campaign of the kind that had defeated McCain in 2000. “Once you win, then you’re going to have to govern,” Hagel told his friend. “The Democrats are going to add to their numbers, probably significantly, in the House and the Senate. You’re going to be faced with a strong Democratic Congress. You are going to have to bring some consensus here, and the first thing you are going to have to do is reach out to the Congress-Democrat and Republican.”
After the meeting, which Hagel says was amicable, any possibility that he might endorse McCain seemed to disappear. In response to interviewers’ questions, Hagel began to say that he would consider serving as Obama’s Vice-Presidential candidate-though he often added that he did not believe he would be asked-or in an Obama Cabinet; he’s often mentioned in the press as a possible Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense. In mid-July, Hagel and his friend Senator Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, accompanied Obama on a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq. Describing Baghdad to me after he returned, Hagel said, “You can’t walk around-you’ve got flak jackets, helmets on all the time, no matter where you are. It’s always struck me it’s almost like a Fellini movie, kind of unreal. The American people are told things are stable and secure and violence is down. No American would walk outside there without a convoy!”
Hagel’s unwillingness to endorse McCain is generally perceived to be a result of their ongoing disagreements over the Iraq war. But he told me that the gulf between them is much deeper: “In good conscience, I could not enthusiastically-honestly-go out and endorse him and support him when we so fundamentally disagree on the future course of our foreign policy and our role in the world.”
Like Obama, Hagel-who is not running for reëlection this year-seems to have viewed the Senate more as a stepping stone than as a final destination. As a freshman, he secured a seat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and became a serious student of foreign policy, treating committee hearings as seminars. After the November, 1998, elections, in which the Republicans failed to gain a single Senate seat, he challenged Senator Mitch McConnell for the chairmanship of the Republican Campaign Committee. He attacked the G.O.P. leadership for running “issueless campaigns” with “demonizing” ads, and he spoke about the need to renew the “political culture in America by ‘defining up’ the standards of debate, political discourse, and campaigns.” (Hagel lost.) In 2000, he was on the short list of Vice-Presidential candidates compiled by Dick Cheney for Bush. Four years later, Hagel, with a small group of advisers, was discussing running for President in 2008.
From the start, securing the Republican nomination loomed as his greatest challenge. A traditional pro-business, small-government conservative, Hagel is a graduate of a Catholic high school, who is pro-life and supports school prayer. He occasionally broke with his party-on immigration reform, on the No Child Left Behind Act, on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage-but, according to Congressional Quarterly, in 2006 he voted with the President ninety-six per cent of the time.
Hagel’s heresy on the Iraq war overshadowed the rest of his record, however. In 2002, the Weekly Standard included Hagel (along with Brent Scowcroft and the Times) in its “axis of appeasement.” After Democrats won control of Congress in 2006 and allowed many more votes on the war, Hagel’s support for Bush’s policies declined-in 2007, he voted with the President just seventy-two per cent of the time-and some commentators referred to him as “not a real Republican.”
Hagel says that he attempted to offer advice privately to the White House but was rebuffed. He once called Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and asked to see him; Rumsfeld invited him to lunch. “I wanted to talk to him alone,” Hagel said. “And when I showed up he had a whole table full of generals and admirals.” During the Clinton Administration, he began writing letters to the President on foreign-policy issues of signal importance. “Clinton used to call me and we’d discuss it, or he’d ask me to come talk with him,” Hagel recalled. In the past eight years, he has written to Bush a number of times, including, most recently, letters about Russia and Iran. But he said that he has never received a response from the President. (He has occasionally received an acknowledgment from the assistant secretary for legislative affairs.)
“This Administration has viewed Congress as an appendage, a nuisance,” Hagel told me. “Clinton was just the opposite. Reagan was the opposite. Bush’s father was the opposite. They understood the value of making Congress their ally.” He said that Vice-President Cheney nearly always attended the weekly lunch held by the Senate Republican Caucus, at which major issues-including the war in Iraq-are discussed. Often, someone asked Cheney whether he’d like to say something. “Almost always, he’d say, ‘No, no,’ ” Hagel said. “It always said to me, by his very lack of engagement or even giving us the courtesy of saying something, that they could care less about us. Except when he wanted us to do something: ‘Vote this way.’ “
In December, 2006, the Iraq Study Group released its report about the war, describing the situation in Iraq as a quagmire. Hagel heartily agreed with the group’s key recommendations-a phased troop withdrawal and diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria-and he was taken aback by the Bush Administration’s negative reaction. “It was a way for the President to almost start over, in building a bipartisan consensus,” he said. “And as I watched this thing go forward-the essential trashing of the report by the President, in his remarks-I was astounded. Not much astounded me about this crowd anymore. But this did.”
Instead of withdrawing troops, the Bush Administration decided to increase their number by thirty thousand, a strategy that became known as the surge. On January 24, 2007, Hagel addressed his colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He and his close friend Joe Biden, the Democratic senator who is the committee’s chairman (and now the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee), sponsored a resolution opposing the escalation and calling for a transition to a limited U.S. military mission in Iraq. “This is not a defeatist resolution,” Hagel told members of the committee. “We’re not talking about cutting off funds, not supporting the troops. . . . When I hear, on both sides of this argument, impugning motives and patriotism to our country, not only is it offensive and disgusting but it debases the whole system of our country and who we are.” He went on, “We didn’t involve the Congress in this when we should have. And I’m to blame. Every senator who’s been here the last four years has to take some responsibility for that. But I will not sit here in this Congress of the United States, at this important time for our country and in the world, and not have something to say about this. And maybe I’ll be wrong. . . . But I don’t ever want to look back and have the regret that I didn’t have the courage and I didn’t do what I could.”
Recalling that morning, Hagel said that, as he listened to his colleagues discuss sending more troops to Iraq, he was struck by their “cavalier approach, as if it were an abstraction. Very few people know much about war, very few are touched by it. This is also a time when we had seen over a period of four years so much deception by this Administration-straight outright lies-and I thought to myself, as I looked around the committee, have we learned nothing in the last four years? And we’re now going to send thirty thousand more troops into this meat grinder? For what? . . . We were not a co-equal branch of government. We were just kind of this afterthought to the President, and whatever he tells us to do, we kind of docilely go along.”
The committee approved the resolution in a 12-9 vote; Hagel was the only Republican who voted for it. “I was called a ‘traitor,’ and I was called ‘disgusting,’ ” he told me. “How could I not support the troops? ‘Shut your mouth, you’re a Republican!’ Which I always found astounding-to equate war based on your politics, as a Democrat or a Republican. I often said in hearings, I wonder where my Republican colleagues, who are so enthusiastic about the war in Iraq, would be if Bill Clinton was the President? I think I know exactly where they would be.” Several days after the vote, Cheney, in an interview with Newsweek, said that he believed “in Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment: thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican. But it’s very hard sometimes to adhere to that where Chuck Hagel is involved.”
For the next several months, Hagel tried to persuade enough Republicans to vote for a similar Democratic amendment, so that Republicans and Democrats together would reach sixty votes-the number required to prevent a filibuster. Various Republican colleagues told him privately that they agreed with him, he said, but he was unable to win more than a handful of Republican votes.
On Wednesday, March 7, 2007, Hagel’s staff sent reporters e-mails announcing a press conference at the University of Nebraska, in Omaha, the following Monday. Most reporters assumed that Hagel was planning to declare his intention to run for President; NPR reported that “the Senator’s campaign is portraying tomorrow’s announcement as one of the most important in his career.” But Hagel told the crowd that he had not yet made up his mind, and he was widely ridiculed. That month, in an interview with Esquire, Hagel said of Bush, “He’s not accountable anymore, which isn’t totally true. You can impeach him, and before this is over, you might see calls for his impeachment.” John McCollister, a former Nebraska congressman and a longtime friend of Hagel’s, wrote a letter to the editor of the Omaha World Herald, criticizing him, though not by name. “I believe that some people disregard the awful consequences of a premature withdrawal and want to end the war, period,” McCollister wrote. “Others have a consuming, burning hatred of George W. Bush as their dominant legislative priority. Those who carelessly throw out talk of ‘impeachment’ are of the same stripe.” Michael McCarthy, the chairman of a private-equity firm in Omaha where Hagel worked in the early nineties, and who was one of his closest advisers as he considered running for President, told me that Hagel is “very good at political calculus, so there is no doubt that he understood the political ramifications of anything he said, or actions he took.” Even so, McCarthy added, as Hagel has become frustrated by Congress’s failure to confront the Bush Administration over its conduct of the Iraq war, “he has become-he’ll hate me for saying this-somewhat more preachy.”
Some observers were perplexed by Hagel’s behavior; if he was serious about running for President, why was he doing and saying things that virtually guaranteed he could not win the nomination? But Rita E. Hauser, a longtime Republican activist who served on Bush’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board during his first term, and had numerous conversations with Hagel as he thought about entering the race, told me that she encouraged him. “It was a long shot, but I felt he could run as a courageous dissenter, and there was plenty of interest in that among a wide swath of Republicans, who felt the war had gone terribly awry.” Hauser said that Hagel was concerned about the growing political power of the religious right. “He was somewhat shocked at the degree to which the pro-life people-I’ll call it the extreme Christian agenda-had taken over the Party.” In the end, Hauser said, Hagel concluded that if he had to take on both the Christian right and the Bush White House he probably could not win the nomination. In September, 2007, Hagel announced that he would not run for President in 2008 and would retire from the Senate at the end of his term.
According to several people close to Hagel, he had become increasingly discouraged by his inability to influence the Bush Administration and his Republican colleagues, particularly on Iraq-war policy. His younger brother Tom, a law professor at the University of Dayton, says that Hagel, in his various occupations before he became a senator, “had his own agenda and could get things done. I think it was incredibly frustrating for him to be in the Senate, as one of one hundred senators.” When I asked Hagel about his decision to retire, he pointed out that after he was elected he said that he only intended to serve for two terms. On Election Night, he went on, his wife, Lilibet, had asked him, “Do you think you can hold a job for six years?”
“That’s true!” Lilibet told me in late July. We were seated at the kitchen table in the Hagels’ large flagstone house, set high on a hill in McLean, Virginia, where they live with their two teen-age children and a Portuguese water dog. Lilibet, a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman from Meridian, Mississippi, who volunteers as a reading tutor in inner-city Washington schools, explained that until Hagel became a senator he had never stayed in a job for more than a few years. “I think he just likes change-it keeps things interesting.” It appears to be a pattern set in his childhood. “His father changed jobs a lot-from bad to worse-and they were always moving,” Lilibet said. “Chuck liked going to new schools-a chance to make new friends and, I think, reinvent himself.”
Hagel, the eldest of four boys, grew up in small towns in the Sand Hills of Nebraska, where acres of arid land stretch to the horizon. (One town where the Hagels lived, Ainsworth, calls itself “The Middle of Nowhere.”) Early on, Hagel developed a curiosity about the world; he loved history, and historical biographies in particular. The family was very poor. The summer he was nine, he held jobs sacking potatoes and ice. When he was eleven, he worked as a carhop at a local drive-in restaurant at night. (He had to stand on a carton to hand trays through car windows.) His father, a veteran of the Second World War, was enormously proud of his oldest boy, but he also drank a great deal and sometimes became abusive. By the time Chuck was eight or nine, he was interposing himself between his father and his mother, or his father and his brothers. When Chuck was sixteen, his father died suddenly, on Christmas morning, and Chuck helped his mother support the family. “So much of who you are starts young,” Hagel told me. “My dad brought a lot of his problems on himself, but I saw how people took advantage of him. And I saw how my mother had to suffer through that. I watched all this. And I guess that’s what has driven me in some ways to be more cause-oriented than a lot of people, to try to go back and see, what’s the cause of this? Let’s don’t just treat the symptoms. When I talk about a man without dignity or without hope, that all comes from down inside me, a long, long time ago.”
In 1967, when Hagel was twenty-one, he and his brother Tom received draft notices and volunteered to go to Vietnam. Eventually, they were assigned to the same unit, and they served together for ten months in the jungles of the Mekong Delta. In “America: Our Next Chapter,” a book he published earlier this year, Hagel describes how Tom saved his life, stanching the blood after shrapnel pierced his chest. A few weeks later, he saved Tom’s life, after their armored personnel carrier hit a land mine. Chuck, his own body aflame, dragged his unconscious brother from the vehicle just before it exploded. Chuck received two Purple Hearts; Tom received three, and a Bronze Star.
For nearly three decades, Chuck and Tom argued about the war, Tom maintaining that it was unjustified from the start and Chuck that it was a righteous effort gone wrong. Then Chuck listened to newly released tapes in which President Lyndon B. Johnson confessed that he knew he couldn’t win in Vietnam but wouldn’t pull out because he didn’t want to be remembered for losing a war. That ended the brothers’ fight. “Chuck is a Type A personality, and he used to be, quite frankly, incredibly rigid,” Tom told me. “But he’s become more willing to listen to contrary opinions.”
Hagel met Lilibet in 1982, when she was completing a master’s degree in literature and working on Capitol Hill as a staffer for G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery, a congressman from Mississippi. By that time, Hagel was thirty-six; he had been briefly married, had worked his way through the University of Nebraska, and had held jobs as a radio newscaster, a lobbyist, and an administrative assistant to Representative McCollister. In 1981, he had joined the Veterans’ Administration as the deputy administrator. The head of the V.A. was Robert Nimmo, a former California legislator and friend of President Ronald Reagan. “Nimmo had next to no interest in veterans’ issues,” Lilibet said. “Chuck went to the White House and said to Ed Meese”-then counsellor to Reagan-” ‘Either Bob Nimmo goes or I go.’ Our friends said, ‘Who are you?’ But Chuck said, as I’ve heard so many times since then, ‘But it’s just wrong!’ ” Hagel resigned, and the Los Angeles Times published an editorial about Nimmo titled “The Wrong Man Is Leaving.”
Hagel entered the nascent cell-phone business. “People say politics is so hard, but nothing could be as hard as that was-and there was no assurance it would work,” Lilibet recalled. The Federal Communications Commission was awarding two free licenses in each market for the operation of cell-phone systems. Hagel and several partners raised money from hundreds of investors, telling them that they were buying the chance to compete for the licenses through comparative trials, which would be adjudicated by the F.C.C. Then the F.C.C. changed the process to a lottery. Many of the investors were furious and wanted their money back. “We thought we were going to be sued from here to the end of the earth,” Richardson Preyer, Jr., one of Hagel’s partners, told me. But they devised an aggressive strategy, in which their company, Vanguard Cellular, negotiated advance agreements with other applicants for each license, thus increasing Vanguard’s odds of winning. When the company went public, in 1988, Hagel and his partners made millions.
Steve Leeolou, another partner, credited Hagel for the company’s survival. “The more difficult and seemingly senseless circumstances become, the better he does,” Leeolou said. He added that Hagel has little patience with situations he cannot control. “In almost every chapter of Chuck’s life, there is this theme of sticking to principles, almost to a fault. He’s been willing to sacrifice friendships, business partners, women along the way that he dated. If he feels that a relationship threatens his principles, or his sense of what’s right, or something that needs to be done, he will cut that relationship off, fairly cleanly, and move on.”
Hagel had resigned from Vanguard in 1987 and for three years was head of the nonprofit organization World U.S.O. In 1992, he and his family moved to Nebraska, where he went to work as an investment banker in Michael McCarthy’s firm-and prepared to run for office.
Lilibet mentioned that Hagel had just returned from his trip with Obama and Reed to Iraq and Afghanistan. “He came back from that trip in a better mood than he did from most other CODELs [congressional delegation trips],” she said. “It was so great for him to be with two guys who appreciate him, listen to him.” As for Hagel’s Republican colleagues, she added, “his position in that caucus has been a little like a skunk at a garden party.” I asked her about Cheney’s criticism of Hagel in Newsweek, and she replied, “That’s O.K. We don’t breathe the same air as Cheney or Rove. We cancel social engagements if we look at the list and see that they’re on it.”
Lilibet, who contributed to the Obama campaign last February, formally endorsed him on October 7th, at a rally of G.O.P. women for Obama in Alexandria, Virginia. In her speech, she referred to the McCain campaign, deploring the “phantom issues, churned out by a topnotch slander machine,” and said, “I believe the character of the campaign says much about the character of the candidate.” She was Michelle Obama’s guest at the final Presidential debate, on October 15th.
On the morning of September 17th, five weeks after the former Soviet republic of Georgia attacked the separatist Georgian province of South Ossetia, and the Russian Army invaded Georgia, William J. Burns, the State Department’s Under-Secretary for Political Affairs, testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. Hagel asked Burns what was being done to repair America’s relationship with Russia, and said, “We’re going to have to find some new common ground and new high ground to deal with Russia,” taking into account the Russians’ “interest, as perceived by them, not just perceived by us, but their optics.” Hagel was invoking, as he often does, the need to see through an antagonist’s eyes. He asked Burns whether President Bush and President Dmitri Medvedev, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, were talking on a regular basis and what new initiatives were being discussed.
Burns responded by citing initiatives that had existed before the Russian advance into Georgia.
“In all due respect, Mr. Secretary, I understand all that, you’ve covered that ground,” Hagel went on. “Let me go back to my question. Are we doing anything new, anything fresh, taking the reality that we have before us? . . . Has the President talked to President Medvedev very often?”
Burns said that Rice had spoken with Lavrov that week and that he was unaware of any recent conversation between Bush and Medvedev.
“The President has not spoken with President Medvedev since the Russianincursion into Georgia?” Hagel asked, incredulous.
Burns said that he would check.
According to the State Department, Bush had spoken with Medvedev the day after the incursion, but not since. “I just don’t think that that’s a smart way to handle this,” Hagel told me. “We’ve got to be very careful that we don’t misplay all this and unwind some of the progress we’ve made and go back, intentionally or unintentionally, to another form of a Cold War.
“We’re going to have differences, of course,” he went on. “But you have to look at where the common interests are.” He listed the global challenges for which Russian coöperation is vital: proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, energy, terrorism, the environment, Iran, North Korea, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Across the board, Russia is woven into this fabric,” he said. “That’s the reality.”
Last January, Hagel travelled to Russia and met with more than a dozen Russian officials. (Vladimir Putin and Medvedev, whom Hagel knows from earlier visits, were travelling abroad.) Nearly all of them raised objections to recent American proposals and objectives, including NATO membership for Georgia and Ukraine, missile-defense systems in the Czech Republic and Poland, and independence for Kosovo. “They made it very clear that if we continued to unilaterally push on these things without at least giving them some opportunity to respond and work through these issues, then there would be a consequence,” Hagel said. “When I came back, I called Bob Gates”-the Secretary of Defense-“and had a long private conversation with him and passed on to him what I heard.” He went on, “This disproportionate Russian response to the Georgians attacking South Ossetia . . . should not have come as any surprise to us.” Hagel added that he had been to Georgia many times and knows President Mikheil Saakashvili well. “I think Saakashvili made a very, very disastrous miscalculation that somehow we would be there.”
McCain has been a passionate supporter of Saakashvili and has encouraged Georgia’s efforts to join NATO, as part of a strategy to contain Russia. (According to the Times, for at least four years, until last March, McCain’s top foreign-policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, was a lobbyist for Georgia.) American officials have repeatedly stated that the U.S. missile-defense systems intended for the Czech Republic and Poland are to be used against possible missile attacks from Iran. But, even before the Russian incursion into Georgia, McCain described the missile-defense systems as “a hedge against potential threats from possible strategic competitors, like Russia and China.” The day the ceasefire between Russia and Georgia was declared, the McCain campaign issued a press release stating that McCain had told Saakashvili, “Today we are all Georgians.” Referring to McCain’s statement, Hagel said, “That’s an interesting thing to say, but I’m not sure what John means by that. Is he willing to put F-16s in the air and attack the Russians?”
Hagel, citing McCain’s repeated calls for Russia to be expelled from the Group of Eight, the association of major industrial democracies, said, “You’re not going to isolate Russia-that’s completely crazy!” He told me that McCain’s approach to Russia was one of the reasons that he could not endorse him.
McCain has often spoken about his desire to create a League of Democracies. Discussing Iran during the first Presidential debate, he said, “Let’s be clear and let’s have some straight talk. The Russians are preventing significant action in the United Nations Security Council. I have proposed a League of Democracies, a group . . . of countries that share common interests, common values, common ideals. They also control a lot of the world’s economic power. We could impose significant, meaningful, painful sanctions on the Iranians.” He concluded, “So I am convinced that together we can, with the French, with the British, with the Germans and other countries-democracies around the world-we can affect Iranian behavior.”
Critics have suggested that McCain’s League of Democracies could diminish the role of the United Nations. When I mentioned this to Hagel, he said, “What is the point of the United Nations? The whole point, as anyone who has taken any history knows, was to bring all nations of the world together in some kind of imperfect body, a forum that allows all governments of the world, regardless of what kinds of government, to work through their problems-versus attacking each other and going to war. Now, in John’s League of Democracies, does that mean Saudi Arabia is out? Does that mean our friend King Abdullah in Jordan is out? It would be only democracies. Well, we’ve got a lot of allies and relationships that are pretty important to us, and to our interests, who would be out of that club. And the way John would probably see China and Russia, they wouldn’t be in it, either. So it would be an interesting Book-of-the-Month Club.
“But in order to solve problems you’ve got to have all the players at the table,” Hagel went on, his voice rising. “How are you going to fix the problems in Pakistan, Afghanistan-the problems we’ve got with poverty, proliferation, terrorism, wars-when the largest segments of society in the world today are not at the table?” He paused, then added, more calmly, “The United Nations, as I’ve said many times, is imperfect. We’ve got NATO, multilateral institutions, multilateral-development banks, the World Trade Organization-all have flaws, that’s true. But if you didn’t have them what would you have? A world completely out of control, with no structure, no order, no boundaries.”
Hagel and McCain’s greatest disagreement remains the Iraq war. McCain has made the surge a keystone of his campaign, citing it as proof that the American military is winning. Hagel, like Obama and Jack Reed, says that it is unclear which factors have contributed most to the reduction in violence in Iraq. The addition of thirty thousand troops doubtless helped, he said. But so did the Anbar Awakening, in which Sunni tribal leaders decided to fight Islamic militants affiliated with Al Qaeda instead of the Americans; the decision by the Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to order his militias to stand down; and the introduction of improved intelligence systems. “The surge is one of the great misunderstood tactical situations that we’ve had in modern times,” Hagel said. “Most of the press does not get it. What is the point of bringing the violence down? Why are we investing the lives of eleven hundred Americans killed, thousands wounded, tens of billions of dollars of additional money, undermining our interests around the world?” The strategic goal, of course, was to establish enough peace and security to enable a political reconciliation among the Iraqis. On that score, Hagel argued, there has been “very limited progress.” And if the Iraqis don’t reach an agreement on sharing the country’s oil reserves, he continued, “then they will have civil war, and they may have civil war, regardless.” In any case, he pointed out, “We still have more troops there than we had before the surge.”
I was speaking with Hagel in early October, shortly before the second Presidential debate. He mentioned that Obama had just called him, and among the many things they discussed was Afghanistan. “Here we are, in a situation where we all agree that the mountain range between Afghanistan and Pakistan represents the biggest threat to our security and the world’s security, where the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and terrorist groups are reconstituting,” Hagel said. “Pakistan is right on the brink. Yet we do not have enough force structure to put into the location that represents the greatest threat to our security. Why is that? Because of a fatal, fatal error”-the decision to go into Iraq and then to commit an even greater number of troops in the surge. “It has consumed our capacity to deal with anything else in the world. It won’t be until sometime next year that you’re going to be able to give more troops to General McKiernan”-the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan-“whom poor Governor Palin in her debate kept referring to as General McClellan.” Hagel chuckled, and added that that war “was a while back.”
McCain has said that an American victory in Iraq will enable the country to become “our stable, democratic ally” against Iran. But Hagel argues that McCain overlooks the reality of Iraq’s relationship with Iran. “We bluster, we threaten, we say we’re not going to engage [Iran],” Hagel said. “Yet our ally, the elected sovereign government of Iraq, is talking to Iran every day. Maliki”-Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister-“and most of the Shia government were exiled in Iran. So we’ve got Ahmadinejad”-the President of Iran-“in and out of Baghdad, Maliki in and out of Tehran: that’s going on without our even acknowledging it.” Hagel added that this collaboration should be encouraged, for the sake of stability in Iraq.
“Whether we like it or not, there will be no peace or stability in the Middle East without Iran’s participation,” Hagel said. In early October, he prevented action on a bill, which had passed in the House, proposing economic sanctions against Iran. Hagel has long criticized unilateral sanctions as ineffective and counterproductive. (Howard Berman, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the legislation’s sponsor, told me that he supports unconditional engagement with the Iranians but favors a twofold approach: “You increase the pressure on them, and you offer to engage with them.” He added that although he shares Hagel’s negative appraisal of the Bush Administration’s unilateralism, he thinks that Hagel opposes this kind of action “too sweepingly.”)
The notion of “winning” in Iraq is a “failed way of thinking,” Hagel said. “If we frame this as win or lose, we’ll be there forever.” He added that this logic is equally flawed with respect to Afghanistan. “I agree with Obama that we’re going to have to put several more brigades in there,” he told me. “But there is no military solution, so we have to be very careful that somehow we don’t just ricochet out of Iraq into Afghanistan, with another hundred-and-fifty-thousand-troop buildup.” According to Hagel, confronting the problems of Afghanistan requires an understanding of its internal politics, its narcotics trade, and its endemic corruption, as well as a regional diplomatic approach, involving Pakistan, India, and Iran.
McCain “thinks we just need more military,” Hagel said. “I’ve talked to John about this many times. I’ve said, ‘John, we’re limited. We’re doing tremendous damage to our Army and Marines, we can’t sustain this.’ ”
Hagel skipped the Republican Convention, choosing instead to go, with two aides, on a fact-finding trip to Latin America. He did hear McCain’s speech, which, in its evocation of the need to bridge a disabling partisan divide, echoed the theme of his discussion with McCain in their meeting in June. But, Hagel said, he’s been “very disappointed” by McCain’s campaign. “He gave one unifying speech and then has spent fifty million dollars to destroy his opponent.” Hagel may be the only senior Republican elected official who has publicly criticized McCain’s choice of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate. “I don’t believe she’s qualified to be President of the United States,” Hagel told me. “The first judgment a potential President makes is who their running mate is-and I don’t think John made a very good selection.” He scoffed at McCain’s attempts to portray her as an experienced politician. “To try to make the excuse that she looks out her window and sees Russia-and that she’s commander of the Alaska National Guard.” He added, “There is no question that this candidate is arguably the thinnest-résumé candidate for Vice-President in the history of America.” Hagel’s criticisms have prompted protests from Republicans, including Senator Orrin Hatch, of Utah, who said in an e-mail statement to me, “Senator Hagel knows that decades of foreign-policy experience in the Senate did not stop countless Democrats and some Republicans from declaring the surge a failure before it started and recommending instead a disastrous policy of withdrawal and retreat in Iraq.”
For Hagel, almost as disturbing as Palin’s lack of experience is her willingness-in disparaging remarks about Joe Biden’s long Senate career, for example-to belittle the notion that experience is important. “There’s no question, she knows her market,” Hagel said. “She knows her audience, and she’s going right after them. And I’ll tell you why that’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because you don’t want to define down the standards in any institution, ever, in life. You want to always strive to define standards up. If you start defining standards down-‘Well, I don’t have a big education, I don’t have experience’-yes, there’s a point to be made that not all the smartest people come out of Yale or Harvard. But to intentionally define down in some kind of wild populism, that those things don’t count in a complicated, dangerous world-that’s dangerous in itself.
“There was a political party in this country called the Know-Nothings,” he continued. “And we’re getting on the fringe of that, with these one-issue voters-pro-choice or pro-life. Important issue, I know that. But, my goodness. The world is blowing up everywhere, and I just don’t think that is a responsible way to see the world, on that one issue. And, interestingly enough, that is one issue that stopped John McCain from picking one of the people he really wanted, Joe Lieberman or Tom Ridge”-the Independent senator from Connecticut and the Republican former governor of Pennsylvania. (Both men are pro-choice.)
Several of Hagel’s close friends told me they believed that if McCain won the election he would ask Hagel to serve in his Cabinet, as either Secretary of Defense or Secretary of State, and that Hagel would agree, despite their differences. In February, 2006, in an article in the Times Magazine, Joseph Lelyveld asked McCain whether he would consider asking Hagel to be his running mate or a member of his Administration, and he quoted McCain as saying, “I’d be honored to have Chuck with me in any capacity. He’d make a great Secretary of State.”
I asked Hagel whether he would accept a post in a McCain Administration, and he said that he had thought about it. “But I don’t see John changing his position and direction and concept of the American role in the world, to adjust to mine,” he went on. “I’m not going to change mine to adjust to his. And I serve at the pleasure of the President. So it wouldn’t work.”