On Iraq, GOP Split Over Gaining World Respect or Enforcing It

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When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) battled George W. Bush for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, one of the few GOP senators who supported McCain was Nebraska’s Charles Hagel, a fellow Vietnam veteran.

But today, McCain and Hagel define the poles of Republican thinking on Iraq.

McCain, who’s often feuded with President Bush on domestic policy, has become one of the administration’s staunchest supporters on Iraq. Hagel, who’s been closer to Bush on home-front issues, has emerged as perhaps the congressional Republican most critical of the administration’s strategy for confronting Saddam Hussein.

While never rejecting the use of force, Hagel has repeatedly warned that the United States must disarm Iraq in a way that reinforces international alliances. In that, he’s close to Democratic “tough doves,” such as Gen. Wesley K. Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander. McCain has become the champion for the hard-line, neoconservative thinkers who want to move quickly against Iraq, no matter how many countries agree.


This argument between two friends crystallizes the choices America faces at a perplexing moment when our military power is unmatched and our sense of security is unraveling.

Hagel believes that to succeed in the struggle against terrorism and weapons proliferation, the U.S. needs cooperation from allies. “All of [our] great power will not be enough to assure American security and prosperity in the 21st century. The threats to both our country and the world will require strengthened alliances,” Hagel said.

Therefore, he argues, if we go to war in Iraq in a way that divides us from our allies, we could harm our security more than help it. “If that is the price of waging war in Iraq, then victory ... in the war on terrorism, in the Middle East, on the Korean peninsula, and against weapons of mass destruction, will not be ours,” he said in a recent speech.

In the broad sense, that means we must be humble in our approach to foreign policy, respectful of others’ views, aware of anxieties about our motivations and power, and committed to solving problems multilaterally whenever possible. “We must avoid the traps of hubris and imperial temptation that come with great power,” Hagel said.

More immediately, he said, before we go to war, we should give inspections another “two or three months,” with a firm deadline for Iraqi compliance, to build international consensus. That way, he said, “if a military option is required, we would have the legitimacy of the United Nations, our allies and world opinion.”

Hagel also insists we must balance our military thrusts against terrorism with global initiatives to solve problems that he believes breed extremism, such as poverty and hunger. “Military power alone will not end this scourge of mankind,” he said.


At the same time, the United States should build international goodwill by renewing our efforts to broker agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, Hagel argues. And we should be sanguine about neoconservative claims that a war in Iraq will trigger a democratic domino effect across the Mideast; that will require the hard work of specific initiatives to encourage economic development and educational reform across the region.

McCain marches from very different premises to very different conclusions.

The new “existential” risk of terrorism, he argues, compels America to act boldly against emerging risks around the globe. To safeguard its security, the United States cannot rely on others, either international institutions such as the United Nations or traditional European allies, much less the Arab world.

“Does anyone really believe that the world’s will to contain Saddam won’t eventually collapse, as utterly as it did in the 1990s?” McCain said in a mid-February speech.

In this dangerous environment, the U.S. must be willing to act alone, not only in Iraq but in North Korea, if necessary. While other nations “may risk their own populations, the United States will do whatever it must to guarantee the security of the American people,” he wrote in January. “And spare us the usual lectures about American unilateralism.”

While Hagel believes the U.S. must demonstrate its commitment to international institutions, McCain reverses the equation: He argues that international institutions must demonstrate they are still relevant to American security by supporting military action against Iraq.

“Should great powers determine that multilateral institutions such as NATO and the [U.N.] Security Council cannot protect their interests when they are imperiled, countries will increasingly be tempted to go it alone,” he warned at a conference in Germany last month.


While Hagel attributes much of the tension with traditional allies to American actions, McCain pins most of the blame on the “calculated self-interest” of France and Germany and “Arab tyrants” who fear the example of a democratic, post-Hussein Iraq.

As a result, McCain argues that we cannot delay an invasion much longer for an international consensus that may never come. McCain also puts much less emphasis than Hagel on the role of economic development, or new efforts to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace, in discouraging terrorism. And he is much more optimistic that the overthrow of Hussein will encourage a democratic chain reaction through the region.

In all, while Hagel argues that broadening international cooperation is the key to security in this new era, McCain believes “credibility” in delivering military force is the top priority. The one is focused on winning respect; the other on enforcing it.

Hagel is 10 years younger than McCain. But McCain is closer to the thinking in the emerging generation of conservative foreign policy thinkers inside and outside the Bush administration. Hagel is upholding an earlier Republican foreign policy tradition, a sober realism that worries about overreach, backlash, the law of unintended consequences.

Both men know better than most that war is a risky, unpredictable business. But like the nation, they have divided on whether the greater risk in Iraq is that America will act so quickly that it alienates its friends, or wait so long that it emboldens its enemies.


Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past Brownstein columns on The Times’ Web site at