Courageous Chuck

There is no one I would support more enthusiastically for President of the United States in the 2008 election than Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel. He is an American hero who showed not only military courage as a soldier in the Vietnam War, but continues to show political courage in Washington DC as one of the few Republicans openly critical of the Iraq War.

This week, he released a statement against President Bush's decision to increase the number of US troops in Iraq. Here are some excerpts:
"I am opposed to the escalation of American involvement in Iraq, including more US troops. This is a dangerously wrong-headed strategy that will drive America deeper into an unwinnable swamp at a great cost…The President's strategy will…further diminish America's standing in the Middle East; and continue to allow the Iraqis to walk away from their responsibilities. The fate of Iraq will be determined by the Iraqis – not the Americans."
This view of self-determination – that a nation has to stand up for itself – clearly reflects Hagel's experience in Vietnam in the late sixties, as explained by this Newsweek article, which contrasts Hagel with GOP favorite John McCain, and is highly recommended for a good dose of background on both men:
"Chuck Hagel 'walked point' with an infantry company near the Cambodian border in some of the worst fighting in 1967 and '68. His brother Tom often went on patrol with him (the brothers circumvented an Army rule that bars family members from serving in combat together). 'I don't know how many times we would be assigned to go out for a search-and-destroy mission,' Tom recalls, 'and we'd pass South Vietnamese villages with South Vietnamese soldiers lying around sleeping in hammocks. They're doing easy duty while we were out doing the hard part.' The lesson to the Hagel brothers was obvious: 'You cannot win somebody else's independence,' says Tom. 'They have to do it for themselves.'"
This anecdote really hit home with me, because it brought back vivid memories of my trip to Iraq in 2003 (see links on the sidebar for video of me in Baghdad). I remember driving back from Karbala to Baghdad and seeing the Iraqi Police (who, at the time, we were told by Donald Rumsfeld's rosy reports, were being recruited in record numbers) sleeping on the side of the road instead of manning a checkpoint.

Hagel continues:
"We cannot escape the reality that there will be no military solution in Iraq. The Iraqis are the only ones who can stop the sectarian and inter-sectarian violence that is now consuming their country…We cannot want success for Iraq more than they want it for themselves. More American troops, treasure and casualties will not change this reality. It will make it worse."
In other words, we cannot continue to baby-sit the Iraqis. The perfect example of this relates to the execution of Saddam Hussein. I was appalled when I read excerpts of an interview with the chief prosecutor for the case, trying to manage the fallout from the unauthorized video footage. He stated,
"Two officials were holding mobile phone cameras...One of them I know. He's a high-ranking government official. The other I also know by sight, though not his name. He is also senior. I don't know how they got their mobiles in because the Americans took all our phones, even mine which has no camera."
This is absolutely ridiculous and is a perfect example of Hagel's view that increased American involvement only makes things worse. In other words, check your cell phone, your sovereignty, and your sense of national responsibility at the door. How can we expect the Iraqis to behave conscientiously and run their own country when we continue to baby-sit them, even confiscating their cell phones? (unsuccessfully, I might add, but that's beside the point) If we manage them like they are a bunch of teenagers in detention, then that is how they will behave. Hagel is correct.

Finally, in order to create "a policy that allows us to leave Iraq honorably, has the sustained support of the American people and does not further destabilize the Middle East", Hagel proposes:
  • moving our troops out of the cities to Iraq's border areas, allowing us to help secure the territorial integrity of Iraq which will be seriously threatened and is critical for the future of Iraq
    • I agree strongly with the withdrawal from urban areas and I argued that we should have begun that process more than 3 years ago – having seen first hand how much tension and resentment a military occupation causes. The bit about protecting the borders is rather vague, but we might assume Hagel is worried about Turkish intervention into the Kurdish-dominated area of Northern Iraq, and of course Iranian plans for the south of the country.
  • begin turning over internal security of Iraq to the Iraqis
    • vague and somewhat trite, but Hagel did explain what he means above when he stated that increased American involvement only makes things worse.
  • engaging all nations in the Middle East to develop a regional internationally sponsored peace process
    • it is unclear whether he means that Iraq's neighbors should sponsor a peace process for Iraqis, or whether we should return to Madrid – either way, I agree with him – this is the consensus of the Baker-Hamilton report as well.
  • accelerating training of Iraqi troops
    • this point is somewhat weak as well – if we haven't trained enough properly recruited and screened Iraqi troops, then we are only accelerating a bigger disaster. This is something that was horribly mismanaged on Rumsfeld's watch, and it may be too late to fix it now. You can only properly train so many people so quickly.
I forwarded some remarks on Hagel, and an Arab-American Republican colleague replied with a healthy dose of skepticism towards my enthusiasm by saying, "it doesn't matter if Chuck Hagel or Bozo the Clown throws his hat in the ring, the real information required to solve this problem is classified." While that sounds like an ad for a spy novel, perhaps he means to suggest that there are possibly some very painful political and economic choices to be made by the Bush Administration, in terms of what might be offered as incentives to assure that key players (like Iran, Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraqi Kurds, and tribal leaders, as examples) play ball in order to facilitate a dignified or at least face-saving withdrawal of US troops.

Whatever the case, Hagel has a better-reasoned view on Iraq than I've seen from just about any of his Washington colleagues in either party. Sources say his decision on whether or not to run for President is forthcoming in the next month or so. Let's hope he takes the plunge.