McCain, an ardent supporter of the Iraq War from the start, began his questioning of Hagel by asking about the latter’s past statements regarding the so-called “surge” of forces into Iraq in 2007. Hagel, by then a vocal critic of the war, came out strongly against adding additional troops to the conflict soon after the policy’s announcement — just like President Obama, Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had — calling it “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”
Hagel didn’t back away from previous statements, saying “Senator, I stand by them, because I made them.” When McCain continued to push Hagel, refusing to allow him to offer a nuanced response to the question of the surge, the Nebraska Republican shot back, noting that the surge tactic took place in the wider context of the most “dangerous decision since Vietnam”:
MCCAIN: Are you going to answer the question? Were you right or wrong? That’s a straightforward question. Answer whether you are right or wrong and then you are free to elaborate.
HAGEL: I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer.
MCCAIN: Let the record show he refuses to answer the question. Please go ahead.
HAGEL: I’m not going to give you a yes or no. It’s far more complicated than that. I will defer that judgment to history. As to the comment I made about the most dangerous foreign policy decision since Vietnam, that was about not just the surge, but the overall war of choice going into Iraq. That particular decision made on the surge, but more to the point, our war in Iraq, I think was the most fundamentally bad, dangerous decision since Vietnam.
Watch their exchange here:
“Aside from the cost that occurred to blood and treasure, what that did to take our focus off of Afghanistan, which in fact was the original and real focus of the national threat to this country. Iraq was not. I always tried to frame all of the different issues before I made a decision on anything,” Hagel continued. Hagel’s response is a continuation of his previous assertions that the war in Iraq is one of the “great blunders” of American history.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) picked up on Hagel’s critique in his questioning, referring to Iraq as a war that never should have taken place. “I always ask the question is this going to be worth the sacrifice, because there will be sacrifice,” Hagel said in response. “In the surge in Iraq, we lost almost 1200 dead Americans and thousands of wounded. Was it required? Was it necessary?” Over four thousand Americans total lost their lives during the Iraq War.
Hagel is also in the right, of course, that the surge can’t be viewed as the only cause for a reduction of violence in Iraq. CAP Senior Fellow Larry Korb and Policy Analyst Matt Duss today published an op-ed in Politico making clear that Hagel’s stance on Iraq was essentially correct:
While historians will of course continue to debate the actual impact that the addition of 20,000 U.S. troops made on the war’s outcome, a rough consensus has developed that recognizes that while the addition of troops did make some positive impact, it did so mainly by facilitating events that were already underway, such as the revolt by Sunnis in Anbar province against al-Qaeda and the decision by Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr to stand down his Mahdi Army militia.
The argument between McCain and Hagel marks the latest low point in a relationship between two previously close friends. In 2000, during his first run at the presidency, McCain cited Hagel as a potential Secretary of Defense should he take the White House.