Maverick Republican senator Chuck Hagel raised his criticisms of the Bush White House to a new level in New York yesterday, holding open the possibility that he could serve in a future Democratic administration or even run on a presidential ticket headed by a Democrat.
Mr. Hagel, who has become increasingly estranged from his party over the Iraq war, said that he would give the current administration “the lowest grade” in “almost every area.”
He added: “I have to say that this is one of the most arrogant, incompetent administrations I’ve ever seen.”
Mr. Hagel’s scorching attack came during an event at the Council on Foreign Relations. He accused the administration of having “squandered” the international sympathy and support for the United States that arose in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“I think of this administration and what they could have done after 9/11, what was within their grasp,” Mr. Hagel said. “Every poll in the world showed 90 per cent of the world for us. Iran had some of the first spontaneous demonstrations on the streets of Tehran, supporting America. [The administration] squandered a tremendous amount of opportunity. There’s where they have failed the country.”
Mr. Hagel’s dissatisfaction with the Bush administration is well known—he even made a sarcastic crack yesterday about the frankness of his opinions being the reason “why I’m so highly regarded at the White House”—but the comments may have been his most trenchant to date.
Mr. Hagel will retire as the senior senator from Nebraska when his current term ends next year, and he announced in March that he would not seek the presidency. But when Ted Sorensen, the famed speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy, yesterday asked from the floor whether Mr. Hagel would consider an offer to run as vice-president on a ticket headed by a Democrat, the answer was intriguing.
“I think this is one of those years where anything is possible,” Mr. Hagel said. “I don’t think that question is going to be posed to me, so I probably wouldn’t have to worry about it. But if there was an area that I thought I could make a difference in… then I would entertain these kinds of serious questions. We are living through this remarkable time in history. Everything’s possible.”
The notion of Mr. Hagel as the vice-presidential nominee on a Democratic-led ticket currently seems a little far-fetched. But he seemed just as inclined to respond warmly to a more likely scenario—the offer of a position within a Democratic administration if that party takes the White House next year.
“I would consider a serious offer in any administration if it comes from a serious president who wants to do something to make our world better and our country stronger,” he said.
There was little comfort of any kind for Mr. Hagel’s party colleagues in his remarks. He opined that it was “likely” that Democrats would “add to their numbers” in Congress and in governors’ mansions across the nation next year, and suggested his party could experience “one of the great political defeats of our time.”
Asked which of the presidential candidates of either party came closest to his own thinking on foreign affairs, Mr. Hagel mentioned only Senator John McCain among Republicans, and even then stopped well short of full-throated endorsement.
He merely said that Mr. McCain was “the only one of the candidates I’ve worked closely with, of the Republicans.”
“Now, Joe Biden: I’m very close to Joe Biden’s philosophy about foreign policy. I suppose of all the candidates out there, including McCain, I’m probably closer to Joe Biden. I think Biden would be a very good president.”
During these ruminations, Mr. Hagel also complained about the brevity required of the candidates during debates and about the media’s concentration on the presumed front-runners.
Deriding the style of the debates as resembling a “poor man’s Gong Show”, he asserted that the candidates “haven’t had the chance, most of them, to articulate the depth of a philosophy about foreign policy.
“On the Democratic side, the media just pays attention to three candidates—Hillary and Obama and Edwards. So guys who actually have something to say, like Biden and Dodd—not that the other three don’t—but those guys get shoved off into the background and they are lucky to get 30 seconds of anything.”
But when asked whether he saw dangers in the possibility that two families, the Bushes and the Clintons, could hypothetically occupy the White House for a continuous 28 years, Mr. Hagel demurred.
“That’s up to the voters, actually,” he said. “If the American people decide to elect Hillary Clinton, they elect Hillary Clinton. She’s certainly capable.”
Returning his attention to foreign affairs, Mr. Hagel gave the administration some credit for organizing this week’s Middle East summit in Annapolis, Md. He described the gathering as “helpful” but also wondered, “Are we going to build on this, more than a photo op?”
Speaking briefly to the Observer after the event, Mr. Hagel bemoaned the Bush administration’s failure to build on the work undertaken by the Clinton White House in trying to resolve the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
While he said, “I don’t blame all of what has happened in the Middle East on Bush”, he added, “I do think it would be a different situation today if we had taken initiatives, and we took no initiative.”
During the event, Mr. Hagel also addressed the situation in Iraq:
“The military has done a magnificent job,” Mr. Hagel, himself a decorated Vietnam veteran, declared, “but we have not seen that translate into political progress, which is in the end all that counts.”
Referring to his colleagues on Capitol Hill, Mr. Hagel also predicted that if there were no clear signs of political reconciliation in Iraq by January or February “then even some of the strongest advocates of the war are going to move in a real different direction.”
The lesson of Iraq, Mr. Hagel contended, was “that you can’t unilaterally, arbitrarily march into a country, invade a sovereign nation, regardless of the dynamics or the reasons…without alliances, the strengths of those alliances.”
Despite the harshness of Mr. Hagel’s criticisms and the seriousness of the subjects being discussed, the mood of the event was not unremittingly grim.
One question from the floor asked Mr. Hagel to consider the possibility of an independent “Hagel-Bloomberg” ticket in next year’s election.
“Bloomberg’s got the money. I think it would be Bloomberg-Hagel,” Mr. Hagel shot back to laughter.
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