McCain and Hagel: United by Vietnam, Divided by Iraq

In "Veterans and Senate Buddies, Until Another War Split Them," Elisabeth Bumiller profiles the relationship between Chuck Hagel and John McCain:


In “Veterans and Senate Buddies, Until Another War Split Them,” Elisabeth Bumiller profiles the relationship between Chuck Hagel and John McCain:

In the old days it was like a Senate buddy movie.

John McCain and Chuck Hagel traveled the world together, popped into each other’s neighboring offices on Capitol Hill and played pranks. Mr. Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska, dropped by one Halloween wearing a McCain mask. Mr. McCain, an Arizona Republican, liked to jokingly fire Mr. Hagel’s staff. “Pack up your desks!” he would say. As Vietnam War veterans — Mr. McCain had been a naval officer and a pilot, Mr. Hagel an enlisted infantryman — they forged an even closer bond.

“John would call him sergeant — ‘Hey, Sergeant, come in, Sergeant!’ ” said Senator Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who is Mr. McCain’s closest friend in Washington. “They would salute each other.”

But as Mr. Hagel heads into contentious confirmation hearings to be President Obama’s secretary of defense, the two remain estranged over policy differences that started with the Iraq War, spread into bitter presidential politics and ultimately damaged, if not ended, a friendship. Some colleagues say the break between two stubborn iconoclasts has been exaggerated in the absolutist world of the capital, but no one disputes that the relationship has cooled dramatically.

“The Iraq war is where the policy differences became pretty difficult to deal with,” said Mr. Graham, speaking of Mr. McCain’s aggressive push for the 2007 surge of American forces in Iraq and Mr. Hagel’s unsuccessful fight against that escalation. “The worldview really began to diverge.”

The differences were on full display when Mr. McCain released a statement after Mr. Hagel was nominated on Monday saying he had “serious concerns” about the positions on national security Mr. Hagel had taken over the years. The two spoke the same day by phone in what an aide called a cordial conversation — one of at least 30 calls to senators Mr. Hagel has made this week in preparation for his hearing — but on Tuesday on CNN Mr. McCain had not changed his tone.

While “the friendship, I hope, is still there,” Mr. McCain said, he remained worried about Mr. Hagel’s “overall attitude about the United States, our role in the world, particularly in the Middle East, and whether we should reduce the Pentagon further.”

People who know both men say that at this point Mr. Hagel appears to have the votes for confirmation and that in the end Mr. McCain could well vote yes for the friend who was at his side during his unsuccessful 2000 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. But aides to both acknowledge the dynamic on Capitol Hill could change and that Mr. McCain — and others — will give Mr. Hagel a rough time. At the very least, they say, Mr. McCain remains bruised over Mr. Hagel’s decision not to support Mr. McCain when he became the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, and over a trip Mr. Hagel took with Mr. Obama to Iraq the same year.

“He was very angry about it,” said one of Mr. McCain’s 2008 advisers, who asked not to be identified discussing the complicated dynamics between the two. Mr. McCain “takes policy disputes very, very personally,” the adviser added. He described Mr. McCain’s current view of Mr. Hagel as one of “profound disappointment.”

Politics is exceedingly personal and mere disagreements can indeed tear apart friendships. McCain is particularly prone to bear grudges over slights, real or perceived.

via Phil Carter

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tyrell says:

    What we learned from Vietnam: Don’ t get in unless it’ s to win. Stay in until you win.
    “Win by attrition” (Colonel Troutman)
    “No terms except unconditional surrender” (General Grant)

  2. Jeremy R says:

    McCain is particularly prone to bear grudges over slights, real or perceived.

    Related to that, supposedly, McCain’s grievances with Obama date back to when Obama was a freshman senator, and was invited by McCain to attend a number of sessions & meetings. Obama was happy to participate, but McCain was actually making an overture for Obama to join his centrist clique (w/ Graham & Lieberman — similar to the position Ayotte holds now). After attending a meeting on lobbying reform, Obama didn’t go McCain’s desired way, leading to a nasty public spat involving publicly released letters and McCain TV hits:

    Dear Senator Obama:

    I would like to apologize to you for assuming that your private assurances to me regarding your desire to cooperate in our efforts to negotiate bipartisan lobbying reform legislation were sincere. When you approached me and insisted that despite your leadership’s preference to use the issue to gain a political advantage in the 2006 elections, you were personally committed to achieving a result that would reflect credit on the entire Senate and offer the country a better example of political leadership, I concluded your professed concern for the institution and the public interest was genuine and admirable. Thank you for disabusing me of such notions with your letter to me dated February 2, 2006, which explained your decision to withdraw from our bipartisan discussions. I’m embarrassed to admit that after all these years in politics I failed to interpret your previous assurances as typical rhetorical gloss routinely used in politics to make self-interested partisan posturing appear more noble. Again, sorry for the confusion, but please be assured I won’t make the same mistake again.

  3. Tony W says:

    McCain will never be forgiven for foisting ‘that woman’ on the national stage. ’nuff said.

  4. Moosebreath says:

    ” McCain is particularly prone to bear grudges over slights, real or perceived.”

    While true, I think that this fight is far bigger than a personal grudge. For much of the country, the Republican Party needs to come to grips with the disaster on all fronts that the Bush the Younger Adminstration was. And a very large part of that is admitting that the Iraq War was a debacle on all counts. It was an unnecessary war, poorly planned and the aftermath was horribly executed.

    McCain is the leader among Republicans for the idea that the Iraq War was somehow noble and desirable, and cannot accept anyone claiming it was not. And since Hagel belatedly came out against the War, McCain must oppose Hagel.

  5. rudderpedals says:

    The McCain/Graham/X triplet has been the GOP foreign policy voice since 2006. If you want a different policy you’ll have to change the standard bearer. And, what moosebreath said.