WASHINGTON — As a Republican senator from Nebraska, Chuck Hagel emerged as a prominent conservative critic of the Iraq War.
Specifically, he charged that Bush administration officials exploited the emotional aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks to push the country into a misguided military adventure on the basis of faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction.
As one member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee pointed out last week, Hagel's previous anti-war stance was a point of contention during his confirmation process as defense secretary and contributed to GOP filibuster efforts that nearly denied him the job.
So it may seem an unlikely role Hagel finds himself in now as he works with other Obama administration officials to sell reluctant Capitol Hill lawmakers on a new U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
“As President (Barack) Obama said, the use of chemical weapons in Syria is not only an assault on humanity, it is a serious threat to America's national security interests and those of our closest allies,” Hagel testified before the House panel last week. “The Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons poses grave risks to our friends and partners along the Syrian borders, including Israel, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq.”
The administration has acknowledged the Iraq-shaped shadow looming over its Syria sales job and have sought to highlight the differences between this potential action and that war.
The Syria campaign being contemplated is much more limited in scope. The administration professes zero interest in a large-scale, boots-on-the-ground invasion, or even a sustained air campaign against Syria.
Instead, the talk is of strategic strikes focused on punishing Syrian dictator Bashar Assad for what most acknowledge is the well-documented use of chemical weapons.
Secretary of State John Kerry has taken the lead in making the administration's case, with public statements and TV interview blitzes. He also has done most of the talking during congressional hearings thus far.
But Hagel has been alongside him, providing both rhetorical support as well as nuts-and-bolts information, such as the estimated cost of Syria operations, which he says would run in the tens of millions of dollars.
Anthony Cordesman, a national security expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it makes sense for the secretary of defense and the top military brass to reserve much of their operational guidance for private consultations with lawmakers at this stage.
If the debate turns to how to deal with the Syrian rebels and military action that goes beyond punishing Assad, then Hagel could easily move to the lead role, Cordesman said.
As the debate progresses, Hagel's background as an Iraq War critic should help him in making the case for intervening in Syria.
“He has credibility because of those factors in the sense that he's certainly not a hawk or someone who has a reputation for taking risks,” Cordesman said.
Still, Hagel has work to do given the polarized — and at times downright mean-spirited — political climate now reigning in Washington, Cordesman said. That atmosphere makes it difficult to persuade Congress to do anything.
Many lawmakers are saying they have unanswered questions about the proposed strikes.
Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said constituents contacting her office have been overwhelmingly opposed to action in Syria.
“I'm still concerned about what I think is kind of an open-ended strategy,” Fischer said. “There's really not anything defined there. What are the goals for it short-term and long-term? Those are questions not just that I had, but I think all of the members of the committee were bringing those forward.”
She also noted with surprise that Hagel said during his testimony last week that the Russians have been supplying Syria with chemical weapons.
That was the first she'd heard of that despite several briefings, she said.
“That is huge,” Fischer said. “That really, really changes the whole political, geopolitical outlook on this situation.”
Fischer was among a group of GOP senators whom Joe Biden invited for dinner and conversation about Syria on Sunday night at the vice president's residence at the Naval Observatory.
When a lawmaker asked last week how he could justify action in Syria to his constituents, Hagel invoked the memory of 9/11, when he was representing Nebraska in the U.S. Senate.
“How many of my constituents during those days in Nebraska or your constituents in California ever thought about or knew where Afghanistan was? Or had ever even heard of this organization called al-Qaida?”
Hagel suggested that day holds lessons for the current debate.
“There is a clear, living example of how we are not insulated from the rest of the world, how things can happen to the United States in this country if we are not vigilant, and think through these things, and stay ahead of these things, and take action to prevent these things from occurring.”
Rep. Lee Terry, the Omaha Republican, said Kerry and Hagel have done a fine job of providing Congress with information about Assad's use of chemical weapons on his own people. But that doesn't mean they've convinced him of the need for the U.S. to strike.
“The litmus test to me would be 'Is it in the national security interests of the United States?' and I think they have not made that case,” Terry said. “In fact, I'm not even sure there's been a real attempt to define what our national security interests are, other than if we don't retaliate, somebody else may use that.”
Terry said Hagel's background, including his decorated service in Vietnam, where he was seriously wounded, gives him credibility. But that goes only so far.
“At some point, though, it's more about a bigger policy — what's in the national security interests of the United States, for example,” he said.
At a recent town hall event in north Omaha, Terry was pressed on the differences between Syria and Iraq, a war Terry voted for. He said that the Bush administration made a compelling case — albeit based on faulty intelligence — that Iraq posed a threat based on Saddam Hussein's hatred for the United States and connections with terrorist groups.
“If they didn't have that connection, I probably wouldn't have voted for it,” he said. “But that was clearly within our national security interests.”
Terry says it remained to be seen if the Obama administration can persuade him to support the strikes on Syria.
“I just assume that since they haven't produced the evidence that there's a direct threat to the United States that they won't come up with one,” he said. “We'll see.”