For decades there have been conversations, tough questions, “ah-ha” moments, deep insights and common sense shared in one-on-one exchanges with John Kerry and Chuck Hagel. In all those times interacting with them, watching them, analyzing them, not one umbrella has been spotted.
These men are not appeasers or pleasers. They are not those who seek peace in our time at any short-term bargain that carries a risk of long-term price. They are veterans of many wars – shooting wars, political wars and personal quests. They have a determination honed of years facing enemies, enigmas, egos and elation of small triumphs; at worst, they have touches of Don Quixote, believing that foreign policy can be bipartisan, smart, bold and moral.
The current din against both men — one now the newest secretary of state, one perhaps the next secretary of defense – is that they are against a robust U.S. role in the world, that they prefer talk and not just action. That they will take the United States aback from foreign entanglements and hope that engagement with others will solve the increasingly intractable problems of the world.
The cry today is a fear of “retrenchment” that would be sparked from two persons who have literally been in the modern day equivalent of trenches.
Just not the case. There may be disagreements in policy goals, but both Kerry and Hagel seek a goal that should be embraced by all: that America keeps its word, is wise and kind, strong when needed and also strong enough to admit it does not always have the best answer.
As Hillary Clinton said in some farewell remarks, the complexities of today’s world demand the use of “smart power,” rather than military might or diplomacy alone. She used an architectural metaphor to compare the Cold War world to today’s more complex reality, saying it is like the difference between the Parthenon and Frank Gehry’s work.
“Where once a few strong columns could hold up the weight of the world, today we need a dynamic mix of materials and structures,” she told the Council on Foreign Affairs.
She was not referring to Kerry and Hagel specifically — yet they certainly measure up well to those architects she portrays as needed to guide America’s role in the world.
Kerry and Hagel have never steered me wrong. Both men are candid about themselves and the role that the United States can and should aspire for the world. In the Senate, both men were outspoken – or aloof – because of their beliefs. Such behavior is considered a cardinal sin in Washington, D.C.
Both men know how to take a punch, and have, and know how to get back up. They have learned how to use wisdom gained and experiences that seared.
Accompanying Kerry on one of his first foreign trips as a senator to Central America, one saw how he acquired information at every moment, processing and then asking for more and conveying a confidence and friendliness the opened doors and minds on those he met.
That was a Kerry trademark, one shared by Hagel. Upon returning from a trip abroad, reporters would find themselves the ones handling questions from Kerry and Hagel, seeking insights and the words from the street and the human view of America that is not always available to those in official positions. Those conversations from both showed the depth of their understanding of situations – missed by many in Washington – and that more knowledge makes better decisions.
Hagel would always break the ice by asking about my Jeep, our preferred means of ground transportation. We vowed never not to have one, at least in spirit – and that is a good analogy. The Jeep was put together for a need in a time of crisis, a solution to a problem at the moment – and it worked. Yet it also was designed to keep on working, the able to handle any situation, to adjust easily and cleverly, with guts and surprise and Yankee ingenuity. With modifications, it did so for decades. It never failed.
Perhaps it is fitting that Hagel will be the first enlisted man to become Defense Secretary. The thought of one-time active duty members of the military assuming high role sin government is almost ancient history. Kerry and John McCain where the only Vietnam veterans to be presidential nominees; Hagel also served in that conflict. No one since John Kennedy has actually served in a shooting war. There is something about seeing war in your face, experience the moment of decision that makes the reality of this “foreign policy tool” all the more vivid and special.
Kerry avoided a nasty confirmation hearing, in large part because the committee he chaired so well – to grudging bipartisan acknowledgement – was the first stop on his confirmation path. Confirmed by his colleagues by a vote of 94-3, Kerry was visibly emotional at times during his nearly hour-long speech as he said his goodbyes to the upper chamber. He said that “new whispers of a desire for progress” leave him convinced that they can “keep our republic strong.”
Kerry was nostalgic as he recalled his first time in the Senate as a Vietnam veteran testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee some 42 years ago. “That’s how I first came to the Senate, not with my vote but with my voice,” he said. When confirmed by that same committee, he said, “It completed a circle which I never could have imagined drawing.”
The same is likely for Hagel, should he have the chance. But the long knives are out. Payback time – and everything good thing that Hagel has done is finding mud on it.
Opponents of Hagel’s confirmation to be the next secretary of defense have waged a smear campaign accusing him of everything. They plan a filibuster, although they are calling it by another name. Their latest gambit is to delay a vote by engaging in a fishing expedition into the financing of the various organizations with whom Hagel is affiliated.
A vote to have a vote is set for Friday in the Senate. Hagel needs 60 yes votes in order to get a confirmation vote on Saturday.
Hagel has a warm smile and a good heart that suggests he is not tough. Get shot at a few times when there is no one to help you and that tells you all you need to know about being tough as well as not leaving anyone behind.
He knows what needs to be done. His political enemies don’t care.
Those who can’t do, try to destroy.