The Logic of Hagel

By Klaidman, Daniel | Newsweek, January 11, 2013 | Go to article overview

The Logic of Hagel


Klaidman, Daniel, Newsweek


Byline: Daniel Klaidman

Why obama wanted an a[umlaut]improbable fellow traveler at the pentagon.

IN the lingo of Capitol Hill they're known as "codels." Members of Congress go on congressional delegations to war zones and foreign capitals to burnish their national-security credentials and try their hand at personal diplomacy. The public often hears about them when congressmen are caught on TV playing golf or sipping a Mai Tai poolside, their trip exposed as a taxpayer-funded boondoggle. But sometimes they serve an important purpose, allowing politicians to grasp the nuances of a complicated foreign-policy issue or giving members a respite from the poisonous partisan climate in Washington.

One such time was July 2008, when Sens. Barack Obama, Chuck Hagel, and Jack Reed traveled together to Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps not a great premise for a buddy movie, but it was an intense bonding experience nonetheless. They delved deeply into policy discussions--"wonkfests," as one former aide called them; shared personal stories from their vastly different backgrounds; and ribbed each other to pass the time on cramped military planes. (Obama teased Hagel for traveling to the battle zone in polished penny loafers.)

For Obama it was an opportunity to see Hagel, with whom he'd developed a kinship on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in action. As people on the trip remember it, the future president was struck by Hagel's rapport with the enlisted men and women they met throughout the trip. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam vet, mingled with the soldiers with ease and authenticity. "The troops knew he'd been in the line of fire," recalls Reed. "He connected with them not on an intellectual level but on a deep emotional basis."

Obama, said Reed and others, noticed something else about Hagel, too: for all of his empathy toward the grunts, he could be a hard-ass with their commanders. In Baghdad, the senators were briefed by Gen. David Petraeus, then the commanding officer of all U.S. forces in Iraq. A virtuoso briefer, Petraeus poured it on with elaborate charts and slides, all aimed at showing that the "surge" of troops in Iraq was working. Violence was down and stability up. But it was too soon to begin a rapid drawdown of troops, the general warned, bolstering his case with a blizzard of stats and metrics.

A former aide recalls that the senators received the presentation with "a heavy dose of skepticism." And as Petraeus rambled on, they began to grow impatient. Finally, Hagel cut the general off. They hadn't traveled halfway across the world for a one-way conversation, he said. They had a message they wanted to deliver: with the economy in a tailspin and the patience of the American public growing thin, the era of perpetual occupations was drawing to a close. This war was going to end. By then, Obama was the Democratic Party's presumptive presidential nominee and, all the polls indicated, Petraeus's soon-to-be commander in chief. "It was a helpful intervention," says Reed dryly.

Flash forward four and a half years, and an ideological firestorm is underway in Washington thanks to Obama's decision to nominate Hagel as secretary of defense. Conservative groups have questioned Hagel's commitment to Israel and whether he'd be tough enough on Iran. His defenders have responded that Hagel's worldview--he favors shrinking the defense budget and is generally skeptical about the use of force--will provide a needed counterweight to hawks both in and out of government.

But this debate--while certainly relevant to the nomination--has also overshadowed some of the other reasons why Hagel might have been chosen. Obama and Hagel do share a worldview, but it would have been easy enough to find other candidates who met that test. More elusive was a nominee with the intangible personal qualities that Hagel brings to the job, qualities that were on display during that 2008 trip to the Middle East: an ability to draw on his own military service in speaking about war, and a blunt willingness to stand up to anyone, including the military's top brass. …

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