Washington In March of 1999, when the United States and its NATO allies were conducting a bombing campaign aimed at halting Slobodan Milosevic's brutal ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska wrote an op-ed article in The Washington Post, arguing that "we must be prepared to do what is necessary to achieve our objectives and ensure victory, including the option of ground troops.
"The most likely path to peace," he wrote, "is in convincing Milosevic of our intention to prevail. If we show weakness or fail, then our adversaries around the world Iraq, North Korea, terrorist groups will challenge us in other areas at other times."
Those are not the words of a man who rejects or fears the use of military power. And they are not out of character for a man who was badly wounded in Vietnam, trying to rescue his brother and fellow soldier in a Viet Cong ambush.
That is one reason why the pointed questions Hagel has been asking for weeks about the Bush administration's evident eagerness to invade Iraq may carry more weight with colleagues of both parties and the public than most of the skeptical muttering one hears.
In an interview two days before President Bush's speech to the United Nations, Hagel told me he had "a completely open mind" on whether military action against Saddam Hussein may be necessary. "I've never been accused of being a dove," he said, noting that he favors putting more U.S. forces into Afghanistan than the administration wants to commit.
The point of his insistent questioning is that the process of making the Iraq decision must look beyond the history of defiance and abuse by the Baghdad regime and provide better answers than those which sent Hagel and his friends to Vietnam.
Along with many veterans of past administrations, Hagel urged Bush to reject Vice President Cheney's view that another trip through the United Nations and another effort at inspections of Iraqi labs were just a waste of valuable time.
The senator hailed Bush's speech to the United Nations and his call for a new U.N. ultimatum as the first step in "a very important process," casting this confrontation with Iraq as an international, not a bilateral issue. But, he told me the day after Bush spoke, "I don't think he answered any of the questions" Hagel has been asking.
Those questions are: "If we invade Iraq, what allies will we have? Who governs after Saddam? What is the objective? Have we calculated the consequences, particularly the unintended consequences?"
Unlike those in the administration who seemingly want to erase the public memory of Osama bin Laden and substitute a fixation on Saddam Hussein, Hagel insists that we examine the context in which a possible Iraqi war would take place. What does it mean for the unfinished work in Afghanistan? For the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? For the tenuous truce between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan?
Lurking behind these pointed questions is an even more important debate about the responsibility of Congress and its members on issues of peace and war. On the day I saw Hagel, he had attended a luncheon of Republican senators where party leaders had urged them to push for an early vote on a resolution of support for the president "foursquare with what the White House wants." He speculated (correctly, as I later learned) that at the simultaneous Democratic caucus, members were discussing how they could delay any such vote until after Election Day.
"This is not an issue we should be addressing as Republicans or Democrats, or as supporters or opponents of the president," Hagel said. "This is one where all of us owe our constituents our best judgment."
Hagel, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has explored the issue more deeply than many of his colleagues, but he confesses he cannot answer the questions he is raising. "It is going to be pretty difficult for anyone to stand in the way of a vote (on a resolution authorizing action against Iraq) if the president wants a vote," Hagel said, "but we need some answers."
Hagel, who is up for re-election to a second term this year, is as safe politically as any candidate can be, but he readily acknowledges some of his constituents have a hard time understanding why he is not simply cheerleading for the president.
He has written those constituents: "I support the Bush administration's policy of regime change in Iraq. ... We must recognize, however, that there are no easy, risk-free options. ... Sending young men and women into war should never be taken lightly. Elected leaders should ask the tough questions before sending them into a situation that may result in the ultimate sacrifice."
David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group