February 1, 2013

If real estate is all about location, location, location, then so is politics. The one place you don’t want to be located is on the proverbial wrong side of history — which is precisely where Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) placed his former senate colleague Chuck Hagel at the latter’s confirmation hearing yesterday for secretary of defense. This has got to be crowded piece of property. When it comes to the wrong side of history, McCain has a virtual time share.

Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) listen as former senator Chuck Hagel testifies. (Larry Downing/Reuters)
Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) listen as former senator Chuck Hagel testifies. (Larry Downing/Reuters)

In a particularly snarky and characteristically angry exchange with his one-time buddy, McCain excoriated Hagel for opposing the so called surge in Iraqin 2007. Wasn’t that wrong? McCain wanted to know. Hagel tried a little rope-a-dope, but McCain was having none of it.

“I actually would like an answer, yes, or no,” McCain said.

“Well, I’m not going to give you a yes or no,” Hagel said.

McCain bore in. “I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it,” McCain said. “And your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether I vote for your confirmation or not.”

Yes, indeed, the surge was a success and Hagel was wrong. But both he and McCain had been monumentally wrong in supporting the war in Iraq in the first place — the surge amounting to a Hail Mary attempt to make something of that lousy, misguided and altogether stupid war. This, I aver and maintain, gives McCain (and Hagel) far more acreage on the wrong side of history than being right or wrong on a mere matter of tactics.

But wait. McCain was also wrong about the Vietnam War, which he supported and defended for the longest time and which he always maintained was winnable. (Maybe a surge?) That war cost the United States 58,000 dead, 303,000 wounded and the confidence that the American people once had their government knew what it was doing. How’s that for being on the wrong side of history?

But wait once more. It was McCain who chose Sarah Louise Palin out of all the people in the United States of America to be his running mate. With the possible exception of a Kardashian, there was no more unqualified person in the country to be a vice president and, as they say, a heartbeat away from the presidency. For this decision alone, McCain will remain forever on the wrong side of history. Even Fox News has given up on Palin. It appears the woman had absolutely nothing to say.

In truth, Hagel did not have a good day. He sometimes seemed unsure of how to express U.S. foreign policy and used the word “containment” when it came to Iran’s nuclear weapons program, which is precisely not what the U.S. is doing. (We don’t want the program contained; we want it ended.) He also had to account for some of his more colorful and ill-advised past comments about Israel and the American lobby that supports it. Hagel is given more to provocation than he is to prudence.

Still, when it comes to the wrong side of history, he is with some very good people. Winston Churchill is there for his archaic love of empire, Woodrow Wilson for his racism, Thomas Jefferson for his hypocrisy about all men being created equal, Franklin D. Roosevelt for his horrid silence about the Holocaust as it was happening, George W. Bush for almost everything he did or said and — Yes! — me for supporting the war in Iraq. Hagel, I think, was wrong on the surge almost as a way of compensating for being wrong on the war itself — an understandable reluctance to throw more troops into a war that should not have been waged at all.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post.