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Hagel's Moment?

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, November 29, 2006

A month ago the idea that Sen. Chuck Hagel would make a serious run for the Republican presidential nomination would have been a non-starter. As an outspoken critic of President Bush on Iraq and other issues, Hagel's way was blocked. His best hope was nomination by a quixotic third party in an online convention.

It's a measure of the step change brought about by the Nov. 7 elections that Hagel is now seriously exploring a GOP presidential bid. The Republican blowout, he says, reflected a "breakdown of confidence and trust in governance" and opened the way for what he believes will be "the most wide-open presidential race since 1952." The Nebraska senator says he will make a formal decision in the next two months on whether to run.

What would make a Hagel candidacy interesting is that he can claim to have been right about Iraq and other key issues earlier than almost any national politician, Republican or Democratic. Though a Vietnam veteran and a hawk on many national security issues, he had prescient misgivings about the Iraq war -- and, more important, the political courage to express these doubts clearly, at a time when many politicians were running for cover.

Hagel warned about the dangers of invading Iraq in a Feb. 20, 2003, speech in Kansas. He noted that America stood "nearly alone" in advocating military force to disarm Iraq and cautioned against "a rush to war." Some of Hagel's premonitions were almost eerie: "What comes after Saddam Hussein? The uncertainties of a post-Saddam, post-conflict Middle East should give us pause, encourage prudence and force us to recognize the necessity of coalitions in seeing it through." He urged the Bush administration to transfer postwar oversight to the United Nations as soon as possible, and he admonished Iraq boosters to "put aside the mistaken delusion that democracy is just around the corner."

Hagel was also early to understand the importance of talking to Iran, another idea that has since become commonplace but at the time took political guts. In a July 10, 2003, speech on the Senate floor, he said that a direct U.S. dialogue with Tehran about the nuclear issue might be necessary. In a Nov. 15, 2005, speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, he was emphatic: "The fact that our two governments cannot -- or will not -- sit down to exchange views must end."

Such outspoken criticisms of Bush policies had put Hagel outside the respectable Republican perimeter -- until Election Day. Hagel delivered his own blunt postmortem in a Nov. 16 speech to a conservative political action committee, GOPAC. The message of the election, he said, "is the American people saying you failed." Republicans had become so focused on keeping power that "we came loose of our moorings."

Hagel went on to criticize his party's failings in language you rarely hear in the usual pre-masticated sound bites of today's politicians. On GOP ethics lapses: "When you blow past the ethical standards and you play on the edge of legality, you're in trouble." On Bush administration foreign policy: "You cannot have a foreign policy based on divine mission. We tried that in the Middle Ages, that's what the Crusades were about."

It strains credulity to imagine that a GOP controlled by Bush and Karl Rove could learn to love Hagel, but, as the Nebraskan says, this is a time of "transformational politics." A more practical problem is that if Hagel does decide to seek the nomination, he will be competing for the same niche as the GOP front-runner, Sen. John McCain, who has been on his "straight-talk express" longer than has Hagel. And although McCain's centrist halo has been tarnished by his efforts to woo the far right, he remains a far more polished speaker and campaigner than Hagel. But on Iraq, Hagel has a clearer stance than does McCain, whose call for a big increase in troops is out of step with both the recommendations of U.S. military commanders and the public mood.

Hagel likes to evoke the Republicanism of Dwight Eisenhower, another former military officer who could be devastating in his criticism of the policies advocated by the military-industrial complex. "This was a real Republican president," he told the GOPAC audience.

Will that pre-Reagan Revolution message play to the party faithful in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2008? Will the Bush administration's problems become so severe that Republicans would embrace a senator from the radical center? The very fact that Hagel is mulling a campaign reminds us that American politics turned a corner this month and that we are in new territory.

The writer co-hosts, with Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria, PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/postglobal. His e-mail address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.


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