Hagel also delivered some of the earliest warnings about the potentially disastrous effects of George W. Bush's ill-grounded "Axis of Evil" speech, in which the president needlessly alienated Tehran only days after the Iranians had actually delivered up aid and support to stabilize post-Taliban Afghanistan. Ironically, Bush's own officials on the ground in Afghanistan, such as Dobbins, had testified to Iran's measured policies at the time. They noted that at a 2002 donor's conference in Tokyo that occurred only a week before the Axis of Evil speech, Iran pledged $500 million--at the time, more than double the Americans' contribution-- to help rebuild Afghanistan. "Iran actually has been quite helpful in Afghanistan," Hagel, then a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Congressional Quarterly on Feb. 1, 2002. "And we're giving them the back of our hand." Hagel added: "We're not isolating [the Iranians]. We're isolating ourselves.... We ought to be a little more thoughtful. That [axis] comment only helps the mullahs."
Hagel was, in other words, displaying a deeply knowledgeable, well-grounded sense of the actual (monetary) and strategic costs of war, a critical faculty that will be badly needed in the months ahead as he grapples with the possibility of sequestration and budget cuts. His skepticism has since been vindicated by a large number of studies of the titanic costs of launching wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan, amounting to multiple trillions of dollars. A Rand Corp. study in 2010 even concluded that the chaos in Iraq following the U.S. invasion "stalled or reversed the momentum of Arab political reform; local regimes perceive that U.S. distraction in Iraq and the subsequent focus on Iran have given them a reprieve on domestic liberalization."
What were Hagel's critics of today, and even some of his lukewarm defenders, saying at the same time? On March 13, 2003, seven days before the Iraq invasion, the Times' Friedman wrote: "This war is so unprecedented that it has always been a gut call-and my gut has told me four things. First, this is a war of choice. Saddam Hussein poses no direct threat to us today. But confronting him is a legitimate choice-much more legitimate than knee-jerk liberals and pacifists think. Removing Mr. Hussein-with his obsession to obtain weapons of mass destruction-ending his tyranny and helping to nurture a more progressive Iraq that could spur reform across the Arab-Muslim world are the best long-term responses to bin Ladenism."
Chuck Hagel, of course, was no knee-jerk liberal. He was, demonstrably, smart and strategic about the risks of a terrible expense in blood and treasure that lay ahead-- far more than many others. And he deserves more credit for that than he is getting. Perhaps Hagel is, after all, just the man to tackle the Defense Department budget.