What Hagel and Kerry learned from Vietnam

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Lanny Davis
Former Special Counsel to President Clinton
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      Lanny Davis

      Lanny J. Davis counsels individuals, corporations and government contractors, and those under congressional scrutiny, on crisis management and legal issues by developing legal, media and legislative strategies that are designed to best produce a successful result for the client. He has experience in securities fraud and SEC investigations as well, and has found that utilizing such an integrated legal/media/lobbying approach can lead to quicker and less expensive settlements or even successfully litigated outcomes. Senior officials of public companies have also hired Lanny and his crisis group to defend themselves successfully against "short and distort" attacks and other market manipulations. For 25 years prior to 1996, before his tenure as special counsel to President Clinton, Lanny was a commercial, antitrust, government contracts and False Claims Act litigator (both in defense as well as plaintiff). He has argued numerous appellate cases in the U.S. courts of appeals.

      In June 2005, President Bush appointed Lanny to serve on the five-member Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, created by the U.S. Congress as part of the 2005 Intelligence Reform Act. In that capacity, he received the highest level security clearances so that he could be fully briefed and "read in" to the various anti-terrorist surveillance and financial tracking programs at the highest classified level. From 1996 to 1998, Lanny served as special counsel to the president in the White House and was a spokesperson for the president and the White House on matters concerning campaign finance investigations and other legal issues. Lanny has participated in national, state and local politics for almost 30 years. He has served three terms (1980 to 1992) on the Democratic National Committee representing the state of Maryland, and during that period he served on the DNC Executive Committee and as chairman of the Eastern Region Caucus. In Montgomery County, Maryland, he served as chairman of the Washington Suburban Transit Commission.

      Lanny has authored several books and lectured throughout the United States and Europe on various political issues. Between 1990 and 1996, Lanny was a bimonthly commentator on Maryland politics for WAMU-88.5/FM, a Washington, D.C. local affiliate of National Public Radio. He has been a regular television commentator and has been a political and legal analyst for MSNBC, CNN, Fox Cable, CNBC and network TV news programs. He has published numerous op-ed/analysis pieces in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, he Washington Post and other national publications.

      Lanny graduated from Yale Law School, where he won the prestigious Thurman Arnold Moot Court prize and served on the Yale Law Journal. A graduate of Yale University, Lanny served as chairman of the Yale Daily News.

      Lanny is admitted to practice in the District of Columbia and Connecticut and before the Supreme Court of the United States and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

By nominating Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) as secretary of State and former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) as secretary of Defense, Barack Obama is the first president — and maybe the last — to have Vietnam War veterans as the two top members of his national-security team.

In many ways, these two men could not be more different in background and political philosophy. Kerry is a Yale graduate from Massachusetts with a consistent liberal voting record. Hagel’s consistent conservative record was frequently to the right even of President George W. Bush — for example, he voted against Bush’s No Child Left Behind education reform law and his Medicare prescription drug bill.

Despite many of these sharp political differences, however, their service in Vietnam in the late 1960s suggests three common lessons and legacies from that tragic war that are likely to influence their policy recommendations to the president for whom they work.

First, they both learned the same lesson as Gen. Colin Powell from the Vietnam experience — what has become known as the “Powell Doctrine”: Don’t send U.S. men and women into war without a commitment of overwhelming force to win and get out as quickly as possible when the mission has been accomplished (i.e., the opposite of Vietnam).

That leads to the second post-Vietnam lesson they appear to share: a heavy aversion toward any U.S. military intervention, especially on the ground, unless clear U.S. national-security interests are at risk. Thus, while both men voted for the Bush Iraq war resolution in 2003, both turned against the war, supported an early-exit deadline, and support President Obama’s commitment to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible.

Third, Vietnam created a generation of American leaders who lean heavily in favor of solving global disputes through diplomacy and multilateral coalitions, as opposed to unilateral actions on the part of the American military. It is likely that Secretaries Kerry and Hagel will give similar advice to President Obama, reinforcing his own instincts, to increase diplomatic efforts to reconcile differences and reduce tensions with Russia and China, and perhaps even with such virulent adversaries as North Korea and Iran.

However, there appear to be major differences between these two men on two critical foreign-policy issues: Iran and Israel, apparently both instances in which the lessons of Vietnam are not applicable.

Kerry has supported strong sanctions against Iran and has implied support for a military strike if Iran does not desist from development of a nuclear weapon. He has been a consistent and outspoken supporter of Israel and has opposed any dealings with terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Hagel has questioned the value of at least some Iranian sanctions, favors negotiations with Hamas, has often been critical of Israel and, as noted in this space last week, used the expression “Jewish lobby” — an ethnic and religious expression that offends many members of the American Jewish community — which he has now called a poor choice of words.