John McCain to Chuck Hagel: I Told You So

During his confirmation hearing to become the next Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel locks horns with old friend Sen. John McCain over the 2006 Iraq troop surge. (Transcript included.)

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REUTERS/Larry Downing

U.S. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) listen as former Senator Chuck Hagel (foreground) testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Hagel's nomination to be Defense Secretary, on Capitol Hill in Washington, January 31, 2013.

Senators John McCain and Chuck Hagel are old friends, both decorated Vietnam veterans, and they agree on many controversial things, from the overreach of neoconservatives in the early 2000s to the need to take a scalpel to the Pentagon Budget.

But one disagreement has gotten between them: the question of whether the 2007 troop surge in Iraq was good policy.

History has mostly vindicated McCain’s position, with some qualifications. So when Hagel came before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday, McCain was looking for a public acknowledgement that his old friend was wrong. Hagel’s refusal to do as McCain wished led to the most memorable moment of the hearing.

The two aging warriors seemed locked less in a battle over policy than one over scarred pride, and an old personal vendetta. Hagel, a Republican, endorsed Barack Obama in the 2008 election, over McCain. Senate memories are long.

A transcript follows:

MCCAIN: Let me begin with your opposition to the surge in Iraq.

2006, we lost — Republicans lost the election, and we began to surge. And you wrote a piece in the Washington Post called, “Leaving Iraq Honorably.” 2007, you committed — you said it’s not in the national interest to deepen its military involvement.

In January 2007, in a rather bizarre exchange with Secretary Rice in the Foreign Relations Committee after some nonsense about Syria and crossing the border into Iran and Syria, because of the surge, then — and a reference to Cambodia in 1970, you said, quote, “When you set in motion the kind of policy the president is talking about here, it’s very, very dangerous,” quote, “Matter of fact, I have to say, Madam Secretary, I think this speech given last night by this president represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam. If it is carried out, I will resist it.”

And then, of course, you continued on and on for months and months talking about what a disaster the surge would be even to the point where it was clear the surge was succeeding. In march 2008, you said, quote, “Here the term quagmires could apply. Some reject that term, but if that is not a quagmire, then what is?” Even as late as August 29, 2011, in an interview with the Financial Times you said, “I disagree with the President Obama, his decision to surge in Iraq as I did with President Bush on the surge in Iraq.”

Do you — do you stand by that — those — those comments, Senator Hagel?

HAGEL: Well Senator, I stand by them because I made them. And…

MCCAIN: Were you right? Were you correct in your assessment?

HAGEL: I would defer to the judgment of history to sort that out. But I’ll…

MCCAIN: The committee deserves your judgment as to whether you were right or wrong about the surge.

HAGEL: I will explain why I made those comments, and…

MCCAIN: I want to know if you are right or wrong. That’s a direct question. I expect a direct answer.

HAGEL: The surge assisted in the objective. But — but, if we review the record a little bit…

MCCAIN: Will you please answer the question — were you correct or incorrect when he said the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam?

Were you correct or incorrect?

Yes or no?

HAGEL: My reference to the surge being…

MCCAIN: Are you going to answer the question, Senator Hagel?

The question is, were you right or wrong? That’s a straightforward question. I would like to answer whether you are right or wrong and then you are free to elaborate.

HAGEL: Well I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer.

MCCAIN: Well let the record show he refuses to answer the question.

Now please go ahead.

HAGEL: Well If you would like me to explain…

MCCAIN: No, I actually would like an answer, yes or no.

HAGEL: Well I’m not going to give you a yes or no. I think it’s far more complicated than that. As I’ve already said, my answer is, I’ll 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 that was made on the surge, but more to the point, our war in Iraq, I think was the most fundamentally bad, dangerous decision since Vietnam. Aside from the cost that occurred in this country to blood and treasure, aside what that did to take our focus off of Afghanistan, which in fact was — 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. Now, just as you said Senator, we can have differences of opinion. But that’s — that’s essentially why I took the position.

MCCAIN: A fundamental difference of opinion, Senator Hagel. And Senator Graham and I, and Senator Lieberman, when there were 59 votes in the United States Senate, spent our time trying to prevent that 60th. Thank God for Senator Lieberman.

I think history has already made a judgment about the surge, sir, and you’re on the wrong side of it. And your refusal to answer whether you were right or wrong about it is going to have an impact on my judgment as to whether to vote for your confirmation or not. I hope you will reconsider the fact that you refused to answer a fundamental question about an issue that took the lives of thousands of young Americans.

HAGEL: Senator, there is more to it than just flooding…

MCCAIN: I am asking about the surge, Senator Hagel.

HAGEL: I know you are, and I am trying to explain my position.

The beginning of the surge also factored in what General Allen had put into place in Anbar province, the Sunni Awakening. We put over, as you know, 100,000 young…


MCCAIN: Senator Hagel, I’m very aware of the history of the surge and the Anbar Awakening. And I also am aware that any casual observer will know that the surge was the fundamental factor led by two great leaders, General Petraeus and Ambassador…


HAGEL: Well, I don’t know if that would have been required, and cost us over 1,000 American lives and thousands of wounded.

MCCAIN: So you don’t know if the surge would have been required? OK.

As Jay Newton-Small has written, Hagel is likely to be confirmed. Whether McCain will vote for him is another matter. But I certainly would not rule it out, even after today’s clash.

For Joe Klein’s take on Hagel v. McCain, click here.