David Frum

01.10.13

Chuck Hagel Changes His Mind... A Lot

Who is Chuck Hagel? Eli Lake dives deep and finds a man of shifting compass.

When the White House urged Congress to pass a resolution authorizing war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Hagel delivered a speech that warned of the difficulties of imposing democracy on a complex, foreign country. But at the end of the day, he voted for the resolution despite his reservations.

Hagel’s approach to the Iraq war was similar to his approach to the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, legislation supported by both Republicans and Democrats that made regime change official U.S. policy for Iraq. Francis Brooke, an adviser to Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi who lobbied Hagel at the time, said, “Senator Hagel saw the popular case against Saddam Hussein's actively hostile dictatorship and was willing give it rhetorical legislative voice by supporting the Iraq Liberation Act.” But Brooke added, “When it came to implementation of the act to aid Iraqi democrats fighting to overthrow Saddam, he balked, fearing any concrete action that might lead to greater U.S. involvement.”

While Hagel flirted with positions out of the GOP mainstream throughout his career, it was in 2005 that he began to break with his party. The key event then was the nomination of a former lawyer for Sen. Jesse Helms named John Bolton to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. The Bolton hearings became a drawn-out fight in Washington that dredged up personal details about the nominee’s treatment of staff members including a Hagel staffer, Rexon Ryu. In an interview with CNN at the time, Hagel said, “I have been troubled with more and more allegations, revelations, coming about his style, his method of operation.”

Nonetheless, Hagel had promised to vote for Bolton, and he eventually did. ...

[J]ust as the Vietnam War veteran was able to adjust his worldview in 2005 and 2006, he appears to be adjusting it again in 2013. On Wednesday the Associated Press reported that Hagel, in private meetings with senior Pentagon officials, expressed his support for strong international sanctions against Iran as well as for leaving the option of military strikes on the table.

It remains to be seen whether these new positions are enough to persuade his old colleagues like John McCain to confirm his nomination as secretary of defense. The one thing his old party does know, however, is that Chuck Hagel is a man who is not afraid to change his mind.