The senator asked Chuck Hagel many questions about the surge in Iraq. Too bad he wasn’t interested in a real answer.
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.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.