Back in 2000, when Hagel was on the stump for McCain at a meeting with Arab-Americans in Michigan, Hagel offended the group when he referred to the Lebanese political party and paramilitary organization Hizbullah as a “terrorist organization.” A write-up of the event in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs said, “While all attendees were clearly put off by the senator’s comments, a few took the opportunity to inform Senator Hagel in less than tactful terms.” One of the grievances expressed today by some of Hagel’s critics is that he declined to sign a letter to the European Union urging the designation of Hizbullah as a terrorist group.
McCain eventually lost the primary to Bush, who went on to become president. When the White House urged Congress to pass a resolution authorizing war against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Hagel delivered a speech that warned of the difficulties of imposing democracy on a complex, foreign country. But at the end of the day, he voted for the resolution despite his reservations.
Hagel’s approach to the Iraq war was similar to his approach to the 1998 Iraq Liberation Act, legislation supported by both Republicans and Democrats that made regime change official U.S. policy for Iraq. Francis Brooke, an adviser to Iraqi politician Ahmed Chalabi who lobbied Hagel at the time, said, “Senator Hagel saw the popular case against Saddam Hussein’s actively hostile dictatorship and was willing give it rhetorical legislative voice by supporting the Iraq Liberation Act.” But Brooke added, “When it came to implementation of the act to aid Iraqi democrats fighting to overthrow Saddam, he balked, fearing any concrete action that might lead to greater U.S. involvement.”