international analysis and commentary

Chuck Hagel as prospective Defense Secretary: saving US foreign policy from itself


The neoconservatives are absolutely right to go after Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel with everything they’ve got. During his two terms as Senator from Nebraska, Hagel exhibited the entirely out of fashion Midwestern view that people should be held accountable for their actions. In today’s Washington this makes him very dangerous.

The men around John Kennedy who were primarily responsible for the Vietnam War (where a young Chuck Hagel fought with valor) had the decency to slink away from the Washington scene. The same cannot be said for the neoconservative supporters and propagators of Iraq, who rather than being held responsible for their geopolitical calamity, instead ensconced themselves in the Washington establishment, where they still (somehow) hold sway over the GOP and (in their democratic hawk guise) maintain a significant voice in the Democratic Party as well.

But much like the Midwestern-inspired Wizard of Oz, Hagel has always been disconcerting to the Washington elite precisely because he knows enough about the place to clearly see the Wizard is about two feet tall. He knows that over the last decade this very same elite has made an abject mess of the United States, heralding (at the very least) its relative decline. Worse still, they have not been held accountable in the least for such a display of historical ineptitude.

By not going along with the usual DC-insider nonsense – that no matter how egregious the foreign policy mistake one must never name names, and hold those responsible for the calamity accountable as one really ought to in a republic — Hagel is well and truly a danger, but for all the right reasons. The basic underlying charge against the Senator’s fitness is correct; he is not part of mainstream Washington thinking.

There are four basic policy charges as to why Hagel is outside the mainstream. First, he is seen by neocons and others as not being sufficiently pro-Israel, with the more hysterical suggesting that there may be anti-Semitic overtones to this. In 2005, Senator Hagel stated the simple truth that a lot of people on Capitol Hill are intimidated by the Israeli lobby, a fact that is simply obvious.

Let me be absolutely clear. Israel is and remains our greatest ally in a very rough neighborhood. There is nothing wrong with Israel having a successful lobby in Washington, as Greece, Ukraine, Poland, and the UK also significantly do; Israel’s is simply more effective, which is to their credit.

But as Hagel is canny enough to know any alliance, however close, involves two distinct sets of interests. While there will be significant overlap between the two, they are not the same. Hagel has hit the nail on the head: He was a Senator for the United States and not Israel, a fact sometimes lost on unthinking cheerleaders, who somehow have forgotten the basic realist point that countries sometimes have divergent interests, even with close allies (a reality that most high Israeli officials entirely understand).

In opposing the Netanyahu government’s overly bellicose stance towards bombing Iran and its reckless settlements policy which entirely precludes a favorable deal with the Palestinians, I think those of us who are genuinely pro-Israel are doing it a favor. If it is taboo to even mention that the Israeli lobby – and certainly not in some weird conspiracy-laden manner – has been so effective as to lead to confusion over this critical distinction in the minds of some on Capitol Hill (which of course serves their interests; I only wish our overseas advocates were as good), then we are very far gone indeed.

Secondly, Hagel has been highly skeptical of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Hagel long ago conceded that his voting to allow George W. Bush to proceed in Iraq was a great error; he has spent the years since highly critical of the war, which he has effectively compared with his early years spent in the charnel house of Vietnam.

Here are indisputable facts. The two wars have cost over $1 trillion (a conservative estimate), money an economically hard-pressed America could certainly have put to better use post-Lehman. The Iraq War has left Iran the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, with Baghdad itself now a close and subordinate ally of Tehran.

After a futile decade fighting an endless war, the Taliban in Afghanistan are far from defeated but are merely waiting for the exhausted Americans to leave, after which they will settle matters with the corrupt and undemocratic President Karzai, a leader who resembles no one so much as catastrophic President Diem of South Vietnam. If opposing all this personal, financial and geostrategic calamity truly disqualifies Chuck Hagel – if it puts him outside the mainstream of elite American foreign policy thinking – my modest suggestion is that perhaps that elite ought to be changed.

Thirdly, Hagel is on record as saying Defense spending is “bloated” and that the DoD ought to be “pared down.” Given that the United States continues to spend more on defense than the closest ten defense budgets combined, and that at present one-third of Americans have no retirement savings, one-quarter of mortgages are underwater, and one-fifth of all wealth has been wiped out post-Lehman, how in the world can this be debated?

Hagel is part of the great and nearly forgotten Republican tradition – epitomized by the extremely successful presidency of Eisenhower – that instinctively understands that at base all power is economic in nature; that a country that ruins its finances by over-spending on defense is not buying itself security. Rather it is committing suicide.

Finally, Senator Hagel seems to have the gall to at least question whether bombing Iran (by either Israel or the US) serves American interests. I testified on this issue before the House International Relations Committee a number of years ago, and here reproduce the list of possible counter-actions that would result from such a strike.

We would make heroes of the mullahs – which ought to be the furthest thing from our minds – as the dirty secret is that all major segments of Iranian society (including the Green Revolution leaders like Mir-Hossein Musavi) support Iran getting the bomb. We would only set the nuclear program back by years, while in turn Tehran would find itself unfettered by sanctions, as a shocked Europe and Iran’s more opportunistic oil clients would use the strike as an excuse to end the economic blockade.

The Iranians would throw out UN inspectors and embark on a crash course to finish the nuclear project, but without unanimous global disapproval. The Arab street would rise up, endangering seemingly pro-American regimes in Egypt (do you want to be leader of the Muslim Brotherhood the day after a strike?), Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. Israeli-Palestinian peace would be off the table for at least a generation, and possibly forever. And all for 3-4 years?

While all this certainly wouldn’t happen, enough of it would to make me a skeptic. Surely, this is at least worth thinking through before we go ahead. After Iraq, it is refreshing to see Senator Hagel will not be rushed into what amounts to another geostrategic disaster.

So the charges against Senator Hagel amount to: he favors (as all realists do everywhere) a one-nation, interest-based foreign policy, thinks Iraq and Afghanistan have been disasters, wants to cut defense spending sensibly to safeguard America’s long-term economic future, and thinks bombing Iran might well be a mistake. Again, if this amounts to heretical thinking outside the American mainstream, please sign me up.

Finally, who in the world are the neocons and their Democratic allies to tell the rest of us living in a republic what it is acceptable to think and what is beyond the pale? Given their doleful and ruinous record over the past ten years, I can only respond by paraphrasing Oliver Cromwell’s proclamation dissolving The Long Parliament.

“It is high time for me to put an end to your sitting in this place…ye are a fractious crew, and ruinous to good government…In the name of God, go!’

Godspeed, Senator Hagel. Keep thinking these seditious thoughts, and America might yet right itself.