How Can Chuck Hagel Have "Opposed" the Iraq War When He Voted For It?

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 7 2013 4:47 PM

How Can Chuck Hagel Have "Opposed" the Iraq War When He Voted For It?

The smartest critique of my colleague Fred Kaplan's column today has been a nit-pick. Kaplan wrote that Chuck Hagel "opposed the Iraq War." But sharp-eyed readers -- anyone who's awake, really -- know that Hagel voted for S.R. 46 in 2002, and thereby gave the Bush administration the authority to go to war. If you want to say that Hillary Clinton supported the war, then so did Chuck Hagel.

Hagel's argument would be that he supported the war with reservations. The initial war resolution, S.R. 45, authorized military action without any reference to international support. The compromise resolution -- a compromise led by nervous pro-war Democrats -- predicated any military action on U.N. resolutions against Iraq. It was a distinction with only a small difference, but Hagel's pre-war denunciations referred to the first bill, not the second. "It might have been better for our vote to have been delayed until after the elections," said Hagel, "as it was in 1990." (Hagel wasn't in the Senate in 1990, and he was on the ballot in 2002, but he had no credible opponent.) When he spoke in favor of the compromise, he caveat-ed it all to hell with worries.

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"Some of my colleagues and some American analysts now speak authoritatively of Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds in Iraq, and how Iraq can be a test case for democracy in the Arab world," he said. "How many of us really know and understand Iraq, its country, history, people, and role in the Arab world? I approach the issue of a post-Saddam Iraq and the future of democracy and stability in the Middle East with more caution, realism, and humility." The war would drag on, he said, "we must understand that we have not put Iraq behind us. This is just the beginning."

The vote was a cop-out, but the speech was cautious. Hagel didn't sound anything like the pro-war diehards. To pick an example at random: Sen. Zell Miller, Georgia Democrat, who explained his vote for war via an extended fable about killing snakes.

You know, when I discovered these Copperheads, I didn't call my wife Shirley for advice, like I do on most things. I didn't go before the city council. I didn't yell for help from my neighbors. I just took a hoe and knocked them in the head and killed them. Dead as a doorknob. I guess you could call it a unilateral action. Or preemptive. Perhaps if you had been watching me you could have even called it bellicose and reactive.

So, yeah, Hagel was more moderate than that. It remains strange that the people who voted for the war and against the surge -- Hagel, Clinton, Kerry, Biden -- rose the highest in government.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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