A vociferous flock of Republicans in Congress, along with some of America’s most zealous right-wingers, have been hammering former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel, who President Obama nominated on Monday for secretary of defense.
They claim Hagel is a radical, outside the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy thinking. Some even claim he’s anti-Semitic.
“Quite frankly, Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking, I believe, on most issues regarding foreign policy,” the irrepressibly belligerent Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said on CNN, adding that this is a “controversial pick” by Obama.
Bill Kristol of the neo-conservative Weekly Standard disparaged Hagel’s “dangerous views on Iran and his unpleasant distaste for Israel and Jews,” insisting “the case for Hagel is extraordinarily weak.”
But the Republican temper tantrum over Hagel is an overblown hysteria that is pitifully divorced from reality.
The fact is that Hagel is well within the mainstream. Critics warn ominously, for example, that Hagel’s disapproval of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are indicative of a reckless, anti-interventionist streak.
Hagel supported the wars at their outset, but turned sour once the Bush and Obama administrations refused to delineate specific, achievable missions that would precipitate a near-term withdrawal. That’s not a radical position. Indeed, it follows the trajectory of the bulk of the American public, who became weary of endless war and the waste in blood and treasure.
Hagel is also critical of meddling in the Asia-Pacific, something the Obama administration has embraced with its “Asia-Pivot” strategy. This is a policy of bolstering China’s regional enemies to counter Chinese influence and maintain U.S. dominance in the region.
According to Foreign Policy magazine, Hagel is “wary of any strategy that smacks of ‘economic, political, and military containment’ of China: ‘this kind of belligerence would be a disaster for our two nations and for the world,’” Hagel has written.
But again, this doesn’t put him out of the mainstream. Take a recent piece by MIT professor Barry Posen in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, hardly a radical rag harboring peaceniks and appeasers.
Posen argues the U.S. shouldn’t be subsidizing the defense of various Asian states. “Not only do these disputes make it harder for Washington to cooperate with Beijing on issues of global importance; they also risk roping the United States into conflicts over strategically marginal territory,” he writes.
But that’s not all. Posen argues — again, in the U.S.’s main establishment journal — for a significant retrenchment in U.S. foreign policy. “The United States,” he thinks, “should withdraw from the military command structure” of N.A.T.O. and bring U.S. troops home from Europe.
He believes “the Pentagon should pare down its presence in Japan” and that “U.S. soldiers no longer need to live onshore in Gulf countries, where they incite anti-Americanism and tie the U.S. government to autocratic regimes of dubious legitimacy.”
That’s far more than Hagel is arguing for, but we didn’t see Lindsey Graham burning his copy of Foreign Affairs, which I have to assume he reads considering it’s geared particularly toward the political elite.
The Republican uproar over Hagel really hit its stride when Hagel’s views on Iran became known. Hagel voted against unilateral sanctions on Iran, argued against isolating the Islamic Republic with covert aggression, and openly opposes going to war.
Incidentally, this doesn’t put Hagel out of the mainstream either. Renowned international relations theorist Kenneth Waltz has argued “the current sanctions on Iran can be dropped,” since “they primarily harm ordinary Iranians, with little purpose.”
The hawks in the GOP establishment don’t like to hear it, but it is a fact that there is no known nuclear weaponization going on in Iran. But a threatening U.S. policy could change that.
Aggression, Waltz argues, “could lead Iran to conclude that a breakout capability is an insufficient deterrent, after all, and that only weaponization can provide it with the security it seeks.”
Hagel’s opposition to going to war with Iran for a nuclear weapons program that doesn’t exist puts him in good company. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military office in the country, also believes a war is not the best option right now. Indeed, that seems to be the consensus view of most of the military establishment.
Finally, Hagel’s views on Israel have generated a firestorm of hate and ideological policing. “Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite,” a senior Republican Senate aide told The Weekly Standard.
He attracted this ire because of a statement he made in a 2008 interview. “The political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” he said, referring to Capitol Hill.
This is an observation that is readily acknowledged by everyone who knows anything about Congress. Admittedly, Hagel used the less politically correct term “Jewish lobby” instead of “Israel lobby,” but the former term is exactly how AIPAC described itself as recently as the 1980s.
Nevertheless, the pro-Israel crowd never seems to miss a chance to call someone a racist anti-Semite for making an uncontroversial statement about the political reality of the Israel lobby’s influence in Washington.
Hagel’s “mainstream” credentials are even easier to see if one looks at who has already endorsed him. His support comes from people like Aaron David Miller, former U.S. Middle East negotiator and adviser for six secretaries of state, and ever the reflection of the foreign policy establishment.
In addition, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and former Bush administration Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage have advocated for Hagel, as have nine American ambassadors, including five former ambassadors to Israel.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter and widely considered to be one of the foremost foreign policy thinkers in Washington, supports Hagel and even appealed for a full vetting of the abundant costs and elusive benefits of starting an unprovoked war on Iran during his confirmation hearings.
Colin Powell, still a glorified Republican despite his friction with neo-conservatives, said he “wholeheartedly endorses” Obama’s nomination of Hagel.
In 2007, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell described Hagel as “one of the premier foreign policy voices [and] one of the giants of the United States Senate” while admitting “many of the predictions Chuck Hagel made about the [Iraq] war came true.”
This is not the rap sheet of a radical non-interventionist, marginalized by the mainstream. Hagel’s career as a senator and as a notable in some of Washington’s major think tanks puts him squarely in the conventional camp.
The seething, rabid, rejectionist Republican opposition to his nomination is simply an indication of how little deviation the political leadership wants to permit from what has now become a dogmatic devotion to military expansion and aggression against trumped-up threats.
The extent to which Hagel will have any effect on policy is not known, but it may be minimal. Most likely, as is typical of such presidential appointees, he will toe the line of the Obama administration, which has been anything but dovish (Mitt Romney’s inability to articulate a substantively different policy than Obama’s should have been evidence enough of that).
But if Hagel’s nomination is confirmed, it will be a victory, a victory for the less belligerent, less interventionist spectrum of the mainstream. And it will show that the pro-Israel crowd cannot purge the political system of those unwilling to demote U.S. interests in favor of the interests of Israel.