Is Chuck Hagel, the just-confirmed secretary of defense, a sensible war skeptic or a lily-livered liberal, as some right-wing hawks have tried to portray him? As it turns out, Nashville had quite a bit to do with the recent “Hagel haggle.” So let’s turn the clock back to 2002 and examine the facts. I believe they will suggest that President Obama chose the right man for the job.
On August 26, 2002, appearing here in Nashville before the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Dick Cheney made his case for a preemptive invasion of Iraq, on entirely false premises.
In his speech’s preamble, Cheney said: “I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to visit the historic city of Nashville, and to being with the members of the VFW and Ladies Auxiliary.” But what he had really been anticipating was making the case for a completely unnecessary, and a soon-to-be-catastrophic, war.
After a few business-as-usual political platitudes and copious praise for the ever-self-aggrandizing Bush administration, Cheney spoke briefly about the need for homeland security, then began laying out his case for a war with Iraq. He advanced the hawkish neo-con agenda in fascist overtones, saying: “We realize that wars are never won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy. We will take every step necessary to make sure our country is secure, and we will prevail.” Of course he was wrong on all four counts. Defensive wars have been won in the past; in fact, the United States became a nation thanks to a defensive war against a European superpower. Iraq was not “the enemy” and posed little or no danger to Americans. The invasion of Iraq did not make us more “secure.” And we did not “prevail.”
Cheney then played the fifth ace in a stacked deck, saying: “We now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.” But of course we did not “know” any such thing. No evidence of Saddam Hussein having nukes, or being close to acquiring them, has ever been found. Colin Powell later revealed that an Iraqi informant — ironically code-named “Curveball” — had concocted the “known” information because he hated Saddam Hussein and wanted Americans to dethrone him.
In his speech Cheney called Iraq’s entirely non-existent nukes a “mortal threat” to Americans. And of course gullible Nashville conservatives took the bait — hook, line and sinker. Americans have been sinking deeper and deeper in debt and blood ever since.
The following morning a New York Post headline interpreted Cheney’s speech succinctly and correctly: ‘A MORTAL THREAT’: CHENEY POUNDS HOME CASE FOR CRUSHING SADDAM.
After Cheney’s speech, Chuck Hagel told CNN that he didn’t believe that Saddam actually possessed nuclear weapons, and he rightly warned against attempts “to scare the American public by saying this guy is a couple of months away from not only possessing nuclear weapons, but a ballistic missile [capable of delivering them].”
Hagel, who has been called a “war skeptic” (which to many right-wing Republicans is synonymous with “traitor”), began to have misgivings about George W. Bush and his administration’s warmongering after the president’s 2002 State of the Union address, in which he lumped Iraq, Iran and North Korea into an “axis of evil” as a prelude to, and justification of, pre-emptive military and covert operations.
Hagel criticized the rush to offensive action, saying: “Actions and words have consequences that are very dangerous at a time in the history of man, when there’s little margin of error left.” In so doing, he echoed the sentiments of American war heroes John F. Kennedy and Douglas MacArthur, who both said that man must end war or war will end man. One of the world’s wisest and most intelligent pacifists, Albert Einstein, agreed, saying that he didn’t know which weapons would be used in World War III, but that he was sure the next war would be fought with sticks and stones.
Around the same time, Hagel told Newsweek: “It’s interesting to me that many of those who want to rush the country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don’t know anything about war. They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes, and watched their friends get their heads blown off. I try to speak for those ghosts of the past a little bit.”
Richard Armitrage, a close friend of Colin Powell and his right-hand man at the State Department, once remarked to an Australian journalist that if he and Powell seemed to be the “two relative doves” compared to war hawks in the Bush administration, it was because they were “the two who had seen combat.” It’s much easier to be a hawk when you’ve never had a friend die in your arms, or get blown to pieces walking a few steps ahead of you. George W. Bush not only never saw combat, it seems he played hooky from the Texas Air National Guard pilot job that kept him out of the Vietnam War. But he sure as hell could show up clad in pilot gear for a photo-op.
I believe Chuck Hagel is the right man for the job, because the secretary of defense should be skeptical about the effectiveness of unnecessary offensive wars. And his job title does, after all, hinge on the word “defense.”