Chuck Hagel’s Career Shows He’s Not Afraid to Change His Mind

The secretary-of-defense nominee has shown he’s not afraid to change his views on the issues, writes Eli Lake.

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It was August 1998, and Washington was embroiled in President Clinton’s adultery scandals. Chuck Hagel, though, had his eye on the next president. So he asked George W. Bush if he could meet with him at the governor’s mansion in Austin, Texas. Karl Rove, then a top adviser to the governor, says he remembers Hagel flying to Austin after Rove politely tried to dissuade him from the trip because the governor’s schedule was crowded.

Hagel flew to Austin anyway. In a meeting with Bush, Rove says, the freshman Nebraska senator gave the governor his personal endorsement for the 2000 election cycle. Bush said he appreciated the senator’s endorsement, but asked him to keep it quiet for the time being, according to Rove, because the governor had not yet announced he was running. After the meeting, Hagel flew to Omaha and told a group of agricultural executives that he was urging Bush to run. The story was covered in the Aug. 10 edition of the Omaha World-Herald, and Hagel briefly became one of the first major politicians to endorse George W. Bush for the presidency.

But the Hagel endorsement didn’t last long. A few months later, when fellow Vietnam War veteran Sen. John McCain announced his own run for the presidency, Hagel gave his endorsement to McCain. “He wanted to be a big guy and talk to the paper,” Rove said. “Then when McCain became a credible candidate he just flipped. That’s Hagel: mercurial, focused on doing it his way.”

For Hagel’s supporters, the former senator’s willingness to change his mind is praised as independent thinking. But for many Republicans today, this quality makes him something of a turncoat. And while Hagel has been attacked for his views on Iran and Israel, it may end up being the former senator’s “mercurial” temperament that will turn Obama’s nomination of a Republican to head the Pentagon into a full-on battle with the party of Lincoln.

Already a number of conservative groups and Republican lawmakers have spoken out against him. The Republican National Committee has come out against Hagel, as have conservative talk-radio hosts, evangelical Christian groups, and right-leaning pro-Israel groups.

There are 45 Republicans in the Senate, and it would take 41 senators to prevent a floor vote on Hagel under current filibuster rules. While activists and staffers opposed to Hagel’s nomination say they hope to persuade Democrats and Republicans to oppose Obama’s nominee, no Democrat has yet said he or she will vote against Hagel, while three Republicans have pledged a no vote.

On Tuesday, the man Hagel endorsed in 2000, John McCain, expressed his concerns about Hagel in an interview on CNN. “I’ve noticed over the years that our views on the United States of America and what we should be doing in the world have diverged,” he said.

Indeed they have. Back in 2000, when Hagel was on the stump for McCain at a meeting with Arab-Americans in Michigan, Hagel offended the group when he referred to the Lebanese political party and paramilitary organization Hezbollah as a “terrorist organization.” A write-up of the event in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs said, “While all attendees were clearly put off by the senator’s comments, a few took the opportunity to inform Senator Hagel in less than tactful terms.” One of the grievances expressed today by some of Hagel’s critics is that he declined to sign a letter to the European Union urging the designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

McCain eventually lost the primary to Bush, who went on to become president. 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.”

Randy Scheunemann, who was McCain’s foreign-policy adviser in both the 2000 and 2008 campaigns, said Hagel came to endorse McCain at a moment when the senator supported the option of sending ground troops to Kosovo in 1999. President Clinton only waged an air war in Kosovo in response to Slobodan Milosevic’s efforts to cleanse the Serbian province of ethnic Albanians.

“Hagel, who is now the über-realist about not committing ground troops, had no compunction about endorsing the guy who wanted all options on the table [in Kosovo]. His endorsement made—to put it mildly—no difference in the campaign,” said Scheunemann.

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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.

Steve Clemons, who got to know Hagel in this period as he was leading a campaign from his blog to stop the Bolton nomination, said he knew from the beginning that Hagel would end up voting for Bolton. “Even though I knew Chuck Hagel was immovable,” Clemons said, “I really respected the methodology that he brought to these questions. It made me an admirer of him, even though he voted for Bolton in the end.”

After the Bolton hearings, Hagel emerged as one of the toughest critics of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. By 2007, Hagel was giving speeches on the floor of the Senate opposing the counterinsurgency strategy and surge of troops in Iraq. Hagel said the troop surge was the worst U.S. military debacle since the Vietnam War. Clemons said in this period Hagel “played the role that J. William Fulbright played in the past. He blew the whistle on his party.”

While Hagel did not endorse Obama in 2008, he did at times advise the campaign on foreign policy. He also traveled with the candidate on a trip to the Middle East. In 2007 and 2008 in the Senate, Hagel also declined to support unilateral sanctions against Iran.

In 2009 Hagel retired from the Senate and was named a co-chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. He also became chairman of the Atlantic Council, a perch he used to speak out in favor of engagement with Iran, and he signed a letter urging President Obama to encourage Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to form a unity government with Hamas, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist group and which is the de facto sovereign of Gaza.

It’s these positions that have earned Hagel praise from his new friends and criticism from many in his old party. But just 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 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.