Monday, April 30, 2007; A15
Sen. Chuck Hagel returned from his fifth visit to Iraq to become one of two Republicans to join Senate Democrats in voting Thursday to begin withdrawal of U.S. troops. It was not an easy vote for a conservative GOP regular and faithful supporter of President George W. Bush's other policies. A few days earlier, Hagel sat down with me and painted a bleak picture of the war and U.S. policy.
Over a dozen years, I have had many such conversations with Hagel, but not for quotation. This time, I asked him to go on the record about his assessment of what the "surge" has accomplished. In language more blunt than his prepared speeches and articles, he described Iraq as "coming undone," with its regime "weaker by the day." He deplored the Bush administration's failure to craft a coherent Middle East policy, blaming the influence of deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams.
Hagel faces a political paradox as he ponders a career decision -- whether to run for president, to seek reelection next year or to get out of elective politics. His harsh assessment resonates with many Republicans who believe Bush's war policy has led the party to disaster. Yet that message faces rejection from GOP primary voters, and he is under attack from the right at home in Nebraska (with Jon Bruning, the state's 38-year-old Republican attorney general, threatening to run against him).
After his latest visit to Iraq, with stops in Baghdad, Fallujah and Ramadi, Hagel told me: "This thing is really coming undone quickly, and [Prime Minister] Maliki's government is weaker by the day. The police are corrupt, top to bottom. The oil problem is a huge problem. They still can't get anything through the parliament -- no hydrocarbon law, no de-Baathification law, no provincial elections," which are needed to bring Sunnis into the governing process.
The regional problem, as described by Hagel, is a U.S. policy breakdown with the failure to engage Iran and Syria. "I do know that there are a number of Israelis who would like to engage Syria," said Hagel. "They have said that Elliott Abrams keeps pushing them back." He quoted foreign ministers, ambassadors and former U.S. officials as saying that they believe Abrams "is making policy in the Middle East."
Hagel certainly is no peace-now zealot. "We're not going to precipitously pull out," he told me. "We have [national] interests in Iraq." While he asserted that "we can't get out by the end of the year," he called for "pulling some of our guys out -- not all of them, but you've got to get them out of [Baghdad] at least, get them out of the middle of civil war." If not, Hagel said, "then the prospects of the Republican Party are very dim next year."
What about claims by proponents of the Iraqi intervention that failure to stop the terrorists in Iraq will open the door to them in the American homeland?
"That's nonsense," Hagel replied. "I've never believed that. That's the same kind of rhetoric and thinking that neocons used to get us into this mess and everything that [Donald] Rumsfeld, [Paul] Wolfowitz, [Richard] Perle, [Douglas] Feith and the vice president all said. Nothing turned out the way they said it would."
It is "nonsense," Hagel said, because "Iraq is not embroiled in a terrorist war today." Hagel, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, cited "national intelligence" attributing "maybe 10 percent" of the insurgency and violence to al-Qaeda. Indeed, he described Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds as opposed to al-Qaeda: "They don't like the terrorists. What's happened in Anbar province is the tribes are finally starting to connect with us because al-Qaeda started killing some of their leadership and threatening their people. So the tribes now are at war with al-Qaeda."
"So," said Hagel, "when I hear people say, 'Well, if we leave them to that, it will be chaos' -- what do you think is going on now? Scaring the American people into this blind alley is so dangerous."
These judgments come from someone credited with rebuilding Nebraska's Republican Party and who has earned a lifetime conservative voting rating of 85.2 percent from the American Conservative Union. Hagel represents millions of Republicans who are repelled by the Democrats' personal assault on President Bush but are deeply unhappy about his course in Iraq.