Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for secretary of Defense, wasn’t the most articulate candidate ever to appear before a Senate committee on Thursday. Hagel fumbled his way through questions about policy and his own past statements, questions that were all utterly expectable.
He called Iran’s repressive government “elected [and] legitimate.” (Prompted by a Democratic senator, he explained that he merely meant “recognizable.”) Asked to clarify whether he thought a nuclear Iran could be contained, he said: “We don’t have a position on containment.” (Committee chairman Carl Levin of Michigan helpfully clarified the clarification: “We do not favor containment.”)
But on one subject, Hagel was downright eloquent: his hostility toward war and his skepticism about the ease with which civilian leaders in Washington can be tempted to commit troops to battle.
“I have one fundamental question that I asked myself on every vote I took, every decision made: Was the policy worthy of the men and women that we were sending into battle and surely to their deaths?” Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I saw it from the bottom. I saw what happens. I saw the consequences and the suffering and horror of war,” said Hagel, who was wounded twice as an infantryman in Vietnam.
That, he said, is why he opposed President George W. Bush’s 2007 surge of troops into Iraq, opposed Obama’s 2009 surge of troops into Afghanistan, and now opposes U.S. military intervention in Syria.
“I always ask the question: Is this going to be worth the sacrifice? Because there will be sacrifices,” Hagel said.
“I hope if I have the privilege of serving as secretary of Defense, it will put someone in charge at the Pentagon … who understands the realities and consequences of war,” he said.
Every secretary of Defense says the decision to send troops into battle is a weighty one. But Hagel’s passion seemed more visceral than most. It’s noteworthy that it led him to oppose one of Obama’s most important decisions, the surge in Afghanistan -- a decision the president is said to have second-guessed too.
Hagel’s confirmation still appears likely despite his unsteady moments in Thursday’s hearing, thanks mostly to the Democrats’ 55-seat majority in the Senate. If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to have an antiwar secretary of Defense, we may be about to find out.