When I joined the Air Force in the early 1980s, I considered myself rather worldly and well-read, in comparison to my fellow recruits. I had recently earned a bachelor's degree, traveled a bit, and had experience as both a broadcast and print journalist.
Despite my "wordliness" I soon discovered there was much to learn about the military and how it worked (or sometimes, didn't). However, I also fell into the trap that often snares you enlisted troops, offering grand discourses on military strategy, tactics, and the management of our unit. While I was smart enough to keep my mouth shut in front of the commander, I'm sure my fellow airmen were bored by my pronouncements. I was one of those guys who figured I could fix the military problems in a matter of days, given the opportunity.
Twenty years later, after earning a commission, and becoming a mid-level officer, my world view changed dramatically. There were few absolutes; the problems we faced seemed infinitely more complex, and the solutions less obvious. Call that reality, maturity, or a little bit of both.
That's why I'm having a hard time figuring out Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel. Senator Hagel served as a combat infantryman in Vietnam, earning two Purple Hearts. His tour of duty appears to have been a life-changing experience; unfortunately, his world view seems to have changed little since his days in combat in Nam.
Consider his recent comments on the War in Iraq, made in a TV interview over the weekend. Appearing on ABC's This Week, Senator Hagel opined that "staying the course" is no longer an option. "By any standard, when you analyze 2 1/2 years in Iraq, we're not winning," he observed.
Excuse me, Senator, but what about those elections that were held back in January? The terrorists weren't able to derail those. Or the Iraqi constitution, now being finalized by representatives of the three major ethnic and political functions. Sure, there have been a few bumps along the way, but the terrorists have been unable to stop the transition toward democracy. Surely that counts as a victory.
But Mr. Hagel only sees doom and gloom on the horizon. He opined that our military presence has "further destabilized" the Middle East. Huh? Again, I'm not privvy to the background papers and briefings afforded members of the U.S. Senate, but I don't think the Middle East was exactly a hotbed of stability before 9-11. Beyond that, one can also make the argument that our military is a needed counterweight to such "stabilizing" influences as Islamic fundamentalism and Iran's nuclear program.
Hagel believes we are locked into a "bogged down problem, not unsimilar to what we had in Vietnam." And, since Senator Hagel served in Vietnam (and his comments are critical of the Bush Administration) the media are willing to grant him moral legitimacy on the issue. Call it the Cindy Sheehan axiom. A measure of personal involvement in an issue makes you an expert, no questions asked.
For that, Senator Hagel should consider himself lucky, because his views on Iraq are ludicrous at best. The problem in Iraq can best be classified as a security issue, specifically the security challenges faced in the Sunni Triangle. The Iraqi insurgency has virtually no public support, and has not deterred ordinary Iraqis from rebuilding their country and putting it on the road to democracy. More over, the terrorists in Iraq do not control vast stretches of the countryside (as the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong did), nor do they have the backing of a major superpower. Fourteen of Iraq's 18 provinces are secure, the economy is improving, and some insurgents have wondered openly if they are losing the war.
But none of this matters to Senator Hagel. Anxious to separate himself from other GOP presidential aspirants in 2008, he is eager to criticize the Bush Administration, sounding the alarm well before the first round of primaries and caucuses. Looking at Iraq, he sees only car bombings, body bags, and quagmire. For him, there is no solution but to bring our boys home and hope the Iraqis can somehow get the job done.
It's a remarkably unsophisticated world view for a man who hopes to be commander-in-chief. In that sense, Senator Hagel is still slogging through the rice paddies of Vietnam, beseiged by Viet Cong, and beset by forces beyond his control. Napoleon once observed that "in every corporal's napsack is a marshal's baton." Chuck Hagel clearly covets the marshal's baton, but his mindset remains that of a buck private.
P.S.--Powerline does a nice job debunking Hagel's near-mythical status among the MSM. As John Hinderaker noted:
"What exactly makes Chuck Hagel a "leading Republican senator"? Not seniority; he is a second-termer. Not any official responsibilities; Hagel is not a member of the Senate leadership, nor does he chair a Senate committee. Not legislative accomplishment or influence; Hagel has little noteworthy legislation to his name, and is more often an eccentric voice--e.g., in his call for reinstatement of the draft--than an influence on his fellow Senators. It is hard to escape the conclusion that for the Associated Press, any Republican who attacks the Bush administration and claims that we're losing in Iraq is automatically promoted to "leading Republican senator" status."