(Cambridge Energy Research Associates Chairman Daniel Yergin, former First USA Bank CEO Richard Vague, and Senator Chuck Hagel — New America Foundation/American Strategy Program dinner salon, 20 February 2007)
Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) recently spoke at a policy salon I hosted with businessman Richard Vague in Washington, DC. (See Richard Vague’s recent report Terrorism: A Brief for Americans.
It was a terrific evening during which Senator Hagel articulated what he would do to get America’s national security portfolio back in shape. A lot of the speech was captured in a talk he gave a few days later at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, but he demonstrated what a tenacious candidate he might be if he decides to run for the presidency, which I think he might.
The dramatic tenor of the night was captured by this article, “Anti-War Veteran May Rally the Republicans” (pdf here) that appeared in The Guardian Weekly by Washington, DC Bureau Chief Ewen MacAskill. I am reprinting the article in full with permission from The Guardian:
The Guardian Weekly — Washington Diary
2-8 March 2007
Anti-War Veteran May Rally the Republicans
by Ewen MacAskill, Washington Bureau Chief, The Guardian
Chuck Hagel, the Republican senator from Nebraska, is one of the few senior figures in either Congress or the Bush administration to have been in combat. While many of them deferred their service, like the chief hawk, Vice-President Dick Cheney, or did a short spell on home soil in the National Guard, like George Bush, Hagel spent time in the mud of Vietnam as an infantry sergeant.
That experience explains why he is one of the leading opponents in Bush’s own party of the Iraq war. When the president announced his decision in January to increase the number of US troops in Iraq by 21,500, Hagel’s comment was one of the most widely quoted in the media. He called the troop surge “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”
Hagel, 60, has not yet announced that he will seek his party’s nomination for the 2008 presidential race, but there were few people who heard him speak last week in Nora’s, one of Washington’s favourite political restaurants, who doubted he intends to run. He was speaking at one of the capital’s best-known salons, run by Steve Clemons, head of a centrist thinktank, the New America Foundation. Clemons is one of the city’s great networkers, with friends across the city and across the parties.
(former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson and Senator Chuck Hagel)
About 30 people joined Hagel and Clemons upstairs at Nora’s: senate staffers, policy wonks, businessmen and journalists. It is an egalitarian salon: no reserved seating and questions open to anyone. Hagel spoke for about 20 minutes on the record and took questions, off the record, for the remainder of the dinner. He sounds like John Wayne and has the same bras self-confidence, but does not share the late actor’s rightwing, gung-ho opinions. In fact, Hagel is an unusual Republican, with a complex set of views, conservative on many issues but so liberal on others he could pass for a Democrat.
(former State Department Middle East expert Hillary Mann Leverett, Financial Times correspondent Guy Dinmore, and former G.W. Bush administration National Security Council Middle East Director Flynt Leverett)
The front-runner for the Republican nomination is Hagel’s fellow senator, John McCain, also a Vietnam veteran, who spent five years in a communist prisoner of war camp. But McCain and the other front-runners, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney, have so far not enthused their party in the way that the Democratic party has been lifted by the stellar trio of Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards.
Almost any political analyst will say it is too early to write off the Republicans, in spite of the anti-Bush mood in the polls. The Democrats’ problem is that almost every recent presidential race has been exceedingly close, and next year’s could be determined not only by party, personality, campaign style and policies, but some chance remark. Or it could be the candidate’s position on the Iraq war. McCain’s problem is that he is too closely identified with the war, having long advocated an increase in troops. If the war continues to go badly, and there is little reason to believe otherwise, Republican support for the war could erode and they may look to someone with a record of opposing it, like Hagel.
Hagel is unusual in his party in other ways. He is liberal on many social issues that most Republicans refuse to countenance, such as gay marriage. Hagel says he regards marriage as between a man and a woman, but is relaxed about homosexual or lesbian marriages. And on an issue that is too hot even for most Democrats, burning the Stars and Stripes, he voted for legislation making it a crime but said that he could still see why people might want to do it as a form of protest.
One of Hagel’s strongest points is that people instinctively like him. A wealthy businessman at Nora’s recalled the first time they had met. The businessman had been braced for a request for funding, as he would have expected from most candidates, but instead the two discussed foreign policy. He came away refreshed that Hagel seemed to be more interested in his opinion than his money.
Hagel’s anti-war views are not confined to Iraq. During the Israeli war against Hizbullah in Lebanon last year, he urged Bush to call an immediate ceasefire, something not only the president but Tony Blair refused to do.
He also calls for the closure of the US detention centre at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where more than 300 people from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Muslim world have been detained without trial. He sees this as damaging America’s reputation as a champion of human rights.
While Bush refuses to open dialogue with Iran, sent an extra aircraft carrier group to the Gulf and insists that all options remain on the table, including a military strike, Hagel spoke passionately at Nora’s in favour of negotiating with Tehran. His opposition to escalation of the Iraq war and avoidance of one in Iran can be traced to his still strong memory of Vietnam, from which he returned in 1968 with shrapnel in his chest and two Purple Hearts. Like the former secretary of state, Colin Powell, another Vietnam vet and one of the few members of the administration who cautioned against the Iraq invasion, Hagel has seen at first hand what happens in war.
In an interview with GQ magazine in January, he said: “Certainly, going through combat in Vietnam and seeing war up close, seeing friends wounded and killed in front of you, you cannot help but be framed by that experience. When I got to Vietnam, I was a rifleman. I was a private, about as low as you can get. So my frame of reference is very much geared toward the guy at the bottom who’s doing the fighting and dying.”
(CNN Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman and Scowcroft Group Principal Arnold Kanter speak with USA Today correspondent Barbara Slavin)
What are Hagel’s chances of winning the Republican nomination? Some at Nora’s, discussing him after he had left, thought he might make it, while others said that he might instead end up as vice-president or secretary of state. Others said that McCain is still the Republican to watch.
But, whatever their thoughts on Hagel’s chances, almost all seemed to be impressed by this anti-war senator from Nebraska.
Ewen MacAskill is Washington Bureau Chief of The Guardian.
Great article on Hagel and the New America Foundation/American Strategy Program salon.
These salons are packed with interesting people — and they do ask tough questions. Our roster of attendees for the salon with Senator Chuck Hagel included:
Washington Bureau Chief of The Guardian Ewen MacAskill, Circuit City founder Alan Wurtzel, former First USA Bank CEO Richard Vague, Washington Post editorial editor Fred Hiatt, Council on Foreign Relations Board Member Peter Ackerman, CNN Washington Bureau Chief David Bohrman, New York Times national security correspondent Michael Gordon, Wall Street Journal diplomatic correspondent Neil King, former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson. . .
(New America Foundation/American Strategy Program Director Steve Clemons and Senator Chuck Hagel)
Moriah Fund CEO Mary Ann Stein, C-Span producer Robb Harleston, Atlantic Philanthropies director Christopher Oechsli, USA Today diplomatic correspondent Barbara Slavin, former President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board Member and Scowcroft Group Principal Arnold Kanter, New America Foundation Non-Proliferation and Nuclear Posture Initiative Director and www.ArmsControlWonk.com blogger Jeffrey Lewis, New America Foundation/Century Foundation Senior Fellow and Middle East Policy Initiative Director Daniel Levy, New America Foundation Senior Fellow Anatol Lieven, Wall Street Journal correspondent Jay Solomon, Senator Hagel’s Chief of Staff Lou Ann Linehan, The Week Washington Editor Margaret Carlson. . .
(Council on Foreign Relations Board Member Peter Ackerman, Soros Fund Management officer Michael Vachon, and Washington Post editorial writer and Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Sebastian Mallaby)
Washington Post defense correspondent Karen DeYoung, New York Times intelligence correspondent Mark Mazzetti, Arms Control Collaborative Director Terri Lodge, New America Foundation Geopolitics of Energy Initiative Director Flynt Leverett, Georgetown Visiting Professor and former National Intelligence Council Middle East Director Paul Pillar, American Prospect Senior Editor Michael Tomasky, former State Department INR Middle East expert Hillary Mann Leverett, Washington College Professor Andrew Oros, Financial Times diplomatic correspondent Guy Dinmore, ExxonMobil DC Office Chief Dan Nelson, Council on Foreign Relations economics and foreign policy fellow and Washington Post editorial writer on sabbatical Sebastian Mallaby, Ashcroft Group Senior Vice President William C.T. Gaynor. . .
New York Times investigative correspondent Jim Risen, former Republican National Committee Deputy Chief of Staff Jennifer Crooks Gaynor, Economist economics correspondent and frequent author of the “Lexington Page” Adrian Wooldridge, Cambridge Energy Research Associates Chairman Daniel Yergin, Soros Fund Management Director of Communications Michael Vachon, Time State Department Correspondent Elaine Shannon, Reuters diplomatic correspondent Carol Giacomo, Venture House Group Chairman Mark Ein, among others. . .
Whether discussing potential Republican or Democratic candidates, I believe that the single most important defining challenge facing the United States today is our engagement in the Middle East.
America’s diminishing prestige, collapsed moral position, and over-stretched military capacity has shown the world our limits. In that environment, enemies have scrambled to move their agendas and U.S. allies are counting on us less. The global equilibrium of interests has been thrown out of whack. Everyone’s behavior has changed — and that has created an enormously dangerous global geostrategic environment.
America’s engagement in the Middle East must be redirected if it is to salvage anything from this point forward and if the U.S. is going to start rebuilding its domestic and international standing.
I think that there are a number of candidates on the Democratic side that may move in this direction eventually — but I’m not convinced that many have really offered more than incrementalist proposals that remain in the same general grooves of Bush’s direction in the Middle East. Wes Clark and Joe Biden are exceptions — and there are others — but they are not yet setting the political pace of the country.
On the Republican side, Chuck Hagel has the framing right — and it’s a narrative I do hope that he brings into the presidential arena. . .soon.
— Steve Clemons