Jeff Strong, a recently retired National Guardsman and "rock-ribbed Republican," churned with conflicting emotions as he sat in an auditorium at the University of Nebraska at Kearney, waiting for Sen. Chuck Hagel.
Strong personifies the dilemma for many residents in this state, where President Bush captured two-thirds of the vote in 2004. Strong is uncomfortable with the role Hagel, the state's Republican senior senator, has taken in criticizing Bush's war plans. "I just don't understand how his anti-war rhetoric is helping to stabilize Iraq," said Strong, a postal worker.
"If I decide to get into this, I would run not just to make a statement," Hagel, 60, said in an interview last week.
He said that if he ran he would seek the Republican nomination. Yet he's also talking up Unity08. That's a plan by a bipartisan group of political operatives to draft a bipartisan presidential ticket on the Internet and offer voters an alternative to the Democratic and Republican candidates next year.
In Nebraska last week, Hagel warned that Bush's troop increase will plunge U.S. soldiers into "a vat of chaos." In his speech at Kearney, Hagel turned his attention to Iran and accused the administration of blowing a chance to win a "pro-American generation" of young Iranians. Instead of saber rattling over Iran's nuclear ambitions, Hagel said, the administration should open a consulate in Tehran.
Hagel has irked the White House. "I believe firmly in Ronald Reagan's '11th Commandment': Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican," Vice President Cheney told Newsweek magazine in an interview this month. "But it's very hard sometimes to adhere to that where Chuck Hagel is involved."
At home, however, Hagel seems to be paying no great political price for his apostasy. While there have been some angry letters to the editor of the Omaha World-Herald, no Republican has emerged to challenge Hagel next year, when he will be up for election to a third term.
Heineman acknowledged that more Nebraskans are questioning the president. Nevertheless, Hagel "has lost a lot of support out here, no question about it," he said. "There's a lot of nervousness. A lot of people don't want to lose this war and yet, the concern is, is there a way to win it?"
Hagel's criticism of Gen. Petraeus's plan to stop the enemy chaos strategy also suggest that Hagel is ill informed on counterinsurgency warfare and the effect of increasing the force to space ratio in disrupting enemy operations. As with most criticism I have seen of the surge Hagel's is irrational and unpersuasive.