War Stories

Inquisitor McCain

The senator asked Chuck Hagel many questions about the surge in Iraq. Too bad he wasn’t interested in a real answer.

 Former Sen. Chuck Hagel testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Thursday.

Photograph by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The senators who grilled Chuck Hagel on Thursday evinced almost no interest in the military issues of the day—the impending budget cuts, the “pivot” of U.S. forces from Europe to Asia, the wisdom of drone strikes, the mission of the Army, the role of force in foreign policy. This is the case even though, as members of the Armed Services Committee, these are the issues they oversee—and even though, if he’s confirmed as secretary of defense, these are the issues Hagel will be tackling.

Rather, the senators spent most of their time playing gotcha games over comments that Hagel has made in the past about Israel and Iraq. Citing Hagel’s comment that AIPAC (or, as he once called it, “the Jewish lobby”) “intimidates” many legislators on Capitol Hill, Sen. Lindsey Graham demanded that the witness provide examples. Hagel was no doubt circumspect in not pointing a finger at nearly every Republican on the panel.

But some of the questions on Iraq did raise legitimate issues. The most pertinent one, raised most persistently by Sen. John McCain, concerned Hagel’s statement in January 2007 that President George W. Bush’s troop surge in Iraq (which was just getting under way) was “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder … since Vietnam.” McCain now asked Hagel, “Were you correct in your assessment? … Were you right or wrong? … Yes or no?”

Hagel refused to answer in one word, saying, “I think it’s far more complicated than that” and, as to whether he was right or wrong, “I’ll defer that judgment to history.” McCain thundered, “I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you are on the wrong side of it.”

To say the least, Hagel handled the question maladroitly. But McCain also asked it imprecisely and then didn’t let the witness respond in full. McCain would have been on more solid ground, had he asked whether Hagel had reassessed the surge, whether he’d changed his mind. (In an online New York Times panel earlier this week, I suggested that someone on the Senate panel ask Hagel this very question.) But it is premature to judge whether the policy and its critics were right or wrong. McCain may believe that history has already judged, but it hasn’t.

In one sense, the surge—or, more precisely, the surge and the switch to a counterinsurgency strategy under the command of Gen. David Petraeus—did work. By the fall of 2007, sectarian violence in Iraq plummeted, as did casualties on all sides, military and civilian. True, other factors, having little to do with U.S. actions, played a part in this trend (e.g., the Anbar Awakening), but it took a commander like Petraeus to recognize those factors and to exploit them in ways that sustained their effects and strengthened U.S. interests.

However, Petraeus emphasized all along that the point of the surge and the shift in strategy was to give the Iraqi factions some “breathing space,” a “zone of security,” so they could settle their disputes and form a cohesive government without worrying about getting blown up. The problem, as we now see, was that the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, wasn’t interested in settling his disputes with Sunnis. He wasn’t interested in working out a formula for sharing oil-revenues, absorbing former Sunni militants into the national army, or filling many other pledges of unification. And so, though at a much lower level than at its peak, sectarian violence persists, and Iraq is still an unstable state.

It is therefore legitimate to ask whether the sacrifices involved in the surge were worth it. In the first few months, U.S. casualties soared. Part of the new strategy involved stationing American troops inside Iraqi neighborhoods, around the clock, instead of having them “commute” to the war from remote, protected bases; this change exposed them to more steady violence. Petraeus warned ahead of time that the short-term costs would be great, but he predicted that in the end, it would turn for the best.

At the time, everyone believed his grim warnings, but few were so confident about his bright predictions. Frederick Kagan, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, who wrote an influential 2006 study that first made the case for a surge, thought that it had only a “one-in-five chance” of succeeding. (He told me this when I interviewed him for my book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. I should add that Kagan still thought the chance was worth taking.) Stephen Biddle, another defense analyst and sometimes-adviser to Petraeus, who also supported the surge, told me at the time that he thought the policy was “a long-shot gamble,” which might take as many as 100,000 troops, staying in Iraq for as long as 20 years, to succeed.

Kagan and Biddle would now say that, in retrospect, they were too pessimistic. But the point is that, at the time, an intelligent, reasonable observer could hear these estimates, from analysts who supported the surge, and conclude, “The risk is too high; the price of entry isn’t worth the gamble.”

If McCain wants to cite Hagel’s opposition to the surge as proof of his poor judgment, he should widen his circle of opprobrium. Hillary Clinton, then a New York Democratic senator, voted against the surge. So did Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The entire Joint Chiefs of Staff opposed the idea vociferously. Yet McCain has never stomped all over his good friend Hillary for her opposition. Nor has he, at least in public, condemned the row of four-star generals for their skepticism.

Have these people reassessed their opinions? That’s a very good question; I’d still like to hear Chuck Hagel answer it. His response might tell us something about his views on the use of force or the balance of risk in an escalation of war. Were Hagel and Clinton and the others wrong about the surge? Was McCain right? As Zhou Enlai said of the French Revolution, it’s too soon to tell.