Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Hagel Preps Nebraska For My Visit

In 10 days, I'll be heading back to my Nebraska hometown for my 30-year high school reunion. While it's difficult to believe that it's been three decades since I looked so dapper in my bright blue, polyester sports jacket at my senior prom, my political views make the days when I lived in one of the reddest states seem even more distant.

But at least I know Nebraska's Republican Senator Chuck Hagel is warming them up for me, in case I'm stupid enough to reveal my total contempt for George W. Bush when I go home. I try to stay away from discussing politics in a place where Cornhusker football is considered far more important than our current national dialog and where most cars – and pickup trucks – sport "God Bless America" and Bush/Cheney bumper stickers.

So when Senator Hagel appeared before hundreds of American Legion members in Grand Island, NE – the closest "big city" to my tiny hometown – over the weekend, a big dose of reality was delivered, as he blasted the Bush administration on Iraq and bluntly explained why he believes the United States is losing the war.

For Hagel, who was wounded twice while serving in Vietnam, a deep fear seems to be that the Iraq quagmire has plunged the U.S. into another pointless war that will ultimately cause our country to leave the Middle East as rapidly as we abandoned Southeast Asia.

"What we don't want to happen is for this to end up another Vietnam," Hagel told the legionnaires, "because the consequences would be catastrophic."

As arguably the most outspoken Republican in Washington when it comes to Iraq, Hagel has often pointed out that Bush sent in too few troops to fight the war, directly leading to today's chaos and rising death tolls.

Citing the fact that terrorists are "pouring into" Iraq, Hagel rebuked Bush for staying with a losing strategy. "The point is, we're going to have to make some changes or we will lose, we will lose in Iraq," he told the legionnaires.

Hagel further pointed out that the basic standard of living is worse than a year ago in Iraq and that civil war is perilously close to erupting there. Allies aren't helping much, he said, and the American public is losing its trust in Bush's handling of the conflict.

The legionnaires gave him a standing ovation at the end of his speech. Carl Marks of Omaha, a Korean War veteran, said: "It sounds like he's conflicted . . . like a lot of us."

Bennie Navratil of Hallam, Neb., whose son left last week for military duty in Afghanistan, said, "I feel he said the right thing: that we can't pull out and something's got to change."

Like many combat veterans, Hagel also seems to have a very personal and visceral reaction to the circumstances in Iraq.

"It has tormented me, torn me more than any one thing," he said with a grim look on his face. "To see what these guys in Iraq are having to go through and knowing what I know here: that we didn't prepare for it, we didn't understand what we were getting into. And to put those guys in those positions, it makes me so angry."

Hagel further ridiculed Bush's frequent citing of a "coalition of the willing" as allies who have committed a relatively small number of troops and aid.

"It's a joke to say there's a coalition of the willing," he said, adding that many are pulling out and the United States is fronting the bills for those who remain. Meanwhile. "we are destroying the finest military in the history of mankind, and the (National) Guard, too. We're stretching our Army to the breaking point."

Finally, Hagel stressed that, while all is not lost, quick action is necessary on Team Bush's ill-advised Iraq strategy. "I believe that there can be a good outcome in Iraq," he said. "I also believe there could be a very bad outcome for Iraq. I believe we have a very limited time for that good outcome."

Wow. That's a lot of truth in a 20-minute speech and, in rural Nebraska, a gutsy place to deliver that message. If people in my home state – where Bush won both presidential elections in a landslide – begin to see the light and ask some tough questions, there may be reason for hope after all.

I guess I'll find out in 10 days.