Former Sen. Chuck Hagel is a suave, energetic, spirited fellow. He is intelligent and, from his early youth, apparently patriotic and undoubtedly courageous. He showed that in Vietnam. Mr. Hagel has been a Republican senator and an accomplished businessman. Now he is President Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense. Because he is Mr. Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, he is attracting dutiful scrutiny, and that is all to the good. This is not your ordinary presidency. In domestic policy and foreign policy, Mr. Obama is showing every indication of attempting to be an epochal president (with 4 million fewer votes for his second term than for his first).
That is to say, he poses a distinct break from Ronald Reagan’s model of government and even from Franklin Roosevelt’s. In the economy, he seems to be resurrecting the welfare state on the model of France, or perhaps Spain. In foreign policy, he famously promises to “lead from behind,” as illogical as that sounds. In both areas his exemplars are sure losers, but his party and his partisans seem not to have noticed.
He is going to need very cunning Cabinet leaders to accomplish his goals, particularly at the State and Defense Departments. At State, he will have, if all goes well, Sen. Jean-Francois Kerry, who, as The Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto has perceptively noted, served in Vietnam. Mr. Kerry is eminently adept at leading from behind, so no problem. Is Mr. Hagel equal to the task? Actually, I think he is. He proved in his memoir published in 2006 a ready ability to juggle the facts, to mask the truth. Some call it casuistry.
I am in debt to my friend Seth Lipsky at The New York Sun for unearthing the corpus delicti. The quotes are misleading. They are meant to mislead. They leave the reader with the idea they were uttered when many had concluded that the Vietnam War was lost. Truth be known, they were uttered in May 1964, well before President Lyndon B. Johnson even began his Vietnam buildup. Their purpose is to defame Johnson and to discredit the Vietnam War.
Wrote Mr. Hagel in his memoir: “If you listen to the tapes released by the Johnson Library, on which President Lyndon B. Johnson and Sen. Richard Russell discuss Vietnam in the mid-1960s, you will hear President Johnson confess that we couldn’t win in Vietnam, but we couldn’t pull out because he didn’t want to be the first president to lose a war.” At the time Johnson spoke those words to Russell, he had not begun the Vietnam buildup or even signed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Russell goes on to express his misgivings about Vietnam, but nonetheless, he eventually signed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. Mr. Hagel concludes: “The cold political calculation I heard on those tapes made me vow that I would never — ever — remain silent when that kind of thinking put more American lives at risk in any conflict.”
Mr. Hagel has been unreliable on other matters. He famously said in 2002, “Both Israelis and Palestinians are trapped in a war not of their making.” Yet when he said that, he overlooked that the Palestinians were indiscriminately slaughtering Israeli civilians. The Israeli Defense Forces was defending them and fighting Palestinian militiamen. There was no equivalence.
Since those days, Mr. Hagel has said many things about the “Jewish lobby,” Israel and the war on terrorism, but we should look to his memoir first. It reveals a slipperiness of character that suggests our present would-be epochal president has chosen an eminently useful candidate to head his Department of Defense. The question is: Is Mr. Hagel useful to America?
R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. is founder and editor-in-chief of The American Spectator and an adjunct scholar at the Hudson Institute. He is the author most recently of “The Death of Liberalism” (Thomas Nelson, 2012).