Many Republicans breathed a sigh of relief when Chuck Hagel, who had become the bête noire of the right for his criticisms of George W. Bush's administration, decided not to run again for his Nebraska Senate seat in 2008. But now an even worse prospect confronts Republicans, foremost among them Sen. John McCain, who has regularly tormented Barack Obama's administration. They may soon confront a Hagel unchained.
If reports are to be believed, President Obama may have discovered his foreign-policy kryptonite -- naming Hagel, who has been teaching at Georgetown University and whom Obama has called "a great friend of mine," to run the Defense Department. With Hagel at the helm, Obama could proceed even more quickly with cutting the defense budget and retrenching abroad, while largely neutering his Republican adversaries.
Like McCain, Hagel is a decorated Vietnam War veteran and a longtime Republican. But there the similarities end. Whatever personal friendship the two men may enjoy (though it's worth remembering that Hagel did not endorse McCain for the presidency in 2008), Hagel, who has drawn very different lessons from Vietnam than McCain, is his foreign-policy antipode. While McCain began his political career in the more cautious realist camp, he has steadily moved into the neocon tent, beginning with the Balkan wars of the 1990s. McCain, who gave the impression that he would want to intervene to stop Russia's invasion of Georgia during the 2008 presidential campaign, never seems to have seen a war he doesn't want to fight on behalf of democracy and human rights, whether it's in Iraq or Syria. He gives the distinct impression that he's on permanent active service in search of monsters to destroy abroad.
Not so Hagel. He voted for the Iraq war but quickly turned on the Bush administration, ultimately deeming it, in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, "incompetent." He made no secret of his contempt for Vice President Dick Cheney and Cheney's loopy pronouncements about how swimmingly the war was going. In 2005, he voted against confirming the egregious John Bolton to become Bush's ambassador to the United Nations.
Hagel's independent streak derives from the fact that his deepest loyalty is to the soldiers who actually fight the battles that Washington politicians direct them to wage. And like Henry Stimson, a Republican who served in Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration as secretary of war, Hagel believes in bipartisanship and compromise. Those traits have not exactly endeared him to his former brethren in the conservative movement who thirst for martial glory, at least from the sidelines.