In “Endgame,” their history of the war in Iraq, Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor recount a trip then-Senator Obama and Senator Hagel took to Iraq in 2008. Obama deftly probes General Petraeus on the nuances of winding down the conflict. But Hagel comes across as prickly and inflexible. At one point, he seems to suggest that the general should be trimming his troop requests to fit the domestic political realities in Washington, and Petraeus takes offense. “I will do what you want me to do,” Petraeus retorts. “But I’m going to give my best military advice. You seem to want me to tailor my advice to a policy.”
Gordon and Trainor go on to explain, “Hagel’s suggestion that Petraeus take the American economy and domestic policy considerations into account in deciding on a drawdown schedule in Iraq crossed one of Petraeus’s red lines. If the new political leadership in Washington wanted to change the mission, that was its right, but the general did not want to put himself in a position of trying to carry out the strategy with less than what was required.”
Petraeus would not comment. However, a national security analyst close to the general and familiar with his thinking does not dispute the account. (Presumably the Senate Armed Services Committee could obtain Petraeus’s testimony on this issue.)
Well, this nugget isn’t going to help Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary, is it? To the contrary, attempting to politicize military judgments, in essence, to spike the punch bowl before it is served up to the president in the guise of honest military advice should be objectionable to Democrats and Republicans alike. Obama says he likes Hagel’s honesty and willingness to speak out; apparently that honesty does not extend to separating military judgments from political considerations.
This is not the only incident that should give pause. Two Wikileaks cables suggest that Hagel was not receptive to concerns from major players in the region about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the growing influence of Iran.
In a meeting with the Saudis in December 2005, their foreign minister, in response to Hagel’s probing about a U.S. withdrawal, said he “had incontrovertible evidence of negative Iranian involvement in Iraq.” This State Department cable goes on to say that Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal “replied that he did not view the reference to American withdrawal as negative as the U.S. itself wanted to withdraw under the right conditions. In his personal opinion, however, he noted that the U.S. should consider increasing troop levels in the short term to ensure the political process concludes successfully. This, he concluded, would make the overall period U.S. troops were needed in Iraq shorter.” This, however, apparently carried no weight with Hagel, who, like Obama, was interested in getting all troops out of Iran as fast as possible.
Likewise in a meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Hagel is told about fears of Iranian influence. “The President made clear his view that the role of politicized Iraqi Shi’a Muslims severely complicated progress toward a solution in Iraq. In Mubarak’s view, the Shi’a were extremely difficult to deal with and given to deception. The President noted the presence of significant Shi’a minorities in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and the Shi’a majority in Bahrain, opining that all of these communities were subject to influence from Tehran.” Again, if Hagel learned anything about the danger of a precipitous U.S. withdrawal, he sure didn’t share that with others.
In sum, Hagel does not appear to be a man influenced by inconvenient facts nor constrained by purely military concerns. If he is not open to and willing to communicate realities on the ground and in the region, how can he be trusted? If he is going to pressure generals to change their reports or disregard the input of key allies, how will we make informed national security decisions?
On a slightly different note, the White House actually did round up a bunch of Jewish leaders for Hagel to meet with — on Inauguration Day no less, thereby nearly guaranteeing minimal news coverage. Unfortunately for Obama, an hour of stern questions and Hagel’s couched recitations of incredible flip-flops left the guests underwhelmed. The Jewish leaders managed to say nothing nice about Hagel (“an important opportunity for a serious and thorough discussion of key issues of importance to all of us.”), an embarrassment for the nominee who ironically is now looking for the seal of approval from those he insulted (I am not the Senator for Israel) and whose interests he opposed for so long. (Not even a brief appearance by Vice President Biden, I am told, could elicit support.) They did not feel obliged to accept his phony confirmation conversion, and neither should the U.S. Senate. (Really, when was it, Mr. Hagel, that you decided unilateral sanctions were a good idea?)
Hagel’s recent flip-flopping on a whole range of issues suggests that politics is always uppermost in his mind. This is fine for a political flunky or even for 1 of 100 senators, but from the defense secretary we expect more. If he is going to pressure commanders to say what is politically convenient, ignore allies’ concerns and tell elected officials whatever they want to hear, how can he possibly lead the Pentagon? Obama might want someone who only tells him what he wants to hear, but our military men and women and the American people deserve better.