In defense of Chuck Hagel
Chuck Hagel would bring welcome realism to Defense.
By Michael Cohen
There’s an old proverb that says you can judge a man by the reputation of his enemies – and in the case of Chuck Hagel, the odds-on favorite to be the next secretary of defense, the enemies who have come out of the woodwork to attack him have truly elevated his reputation and suitability for the job.
The assaults on Hagel began almost immediately after his name was floated for the job – and from the usual sources. First, it was the self-appointed protectors of Israel, who determined Hagel suspect because he finds the efforts of the pro-Israel lobby to punish any public official who diverges from the notion that Israel can do no wrong somewhat problematic. Indeed, after the Hagel trial balloon was launched, it didn’t take long for the Weekly Standard to find an anonymous “Republican Senate aide” to declare “send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an antisemite.”
Why is Hagel a hater of Jews? Because he once suggested that “the Jewish lobby” intimidates more than a few politicians. That the “pro-Israel” lobby is both predominantly Jewish and intimidating to politicians is a surprise, of course, to no one who lives inside the Beltway – but as the old joke goes in Washington, a gaffe is when you actually speak the truth.
On the heels of this rather predictable attack came Wednesday’s full-throated assault on Hagel in the Washington Post, in an editorial titled “Chuck Hagel is not the Right Choice for Defense Secretary.”
Now, it’s important to remember that when it comes to US foreign policy and national security, the Washington Post editorial board is pretty much always wrong – and the bigger the issue, the more wrong they are. They were badly wrong about the Iraq war (even going so far as to savage the wars critics); wrong about the surge in Afghanistan (is still badly wrong about current policy there); and is decidedly wrong on Chuck Hagel. So it’s important to take whatever the Post says with a grain of salt. Still, this op-ed is particularly notable example of the sort of elite groupthink that defines so much of Washington’s foreign policy discussions.
This isn’t to say that Hagel is the perfect candidate. Indeed, it’s disturbing that once again, a Democratic president is prepared to select a Republican for the job of secretary of defense, which only serves to aid and abet the notion that a Democrat is not tough enough or strong enough or supportive enough of the military to hold the top national security position in the US government. Moreover, senators in general tend to make bad managers, and it is not immediately clear that Hagel would be the kind of administrator that the DoD needs.
But these aren’t the nature of the Post’s complaints with Hagel. Instead, they argue that “Mr Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr Obama during his first term – and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him.” Hagel is what might be described as an old-school Republican realist – a creature that used to roam free in Washington, DC, but which, after the rise of the GOP’s predatory, neoconservative wing and the liberal hawks of the Democratic party, has increasingly become an endangered species.
So it’s not surprising that the Post would be surprised by the presence of such animals. After all, few editorial boards more assiduously trumpet the rhetoric of the neoconservatives and liberal hawks quite as loudly as they do.
So, what makes Hagel an apostate from the mainstream? For one, according to the Post, Hagel believes that the defense department’s budget is “bloated” and “needs to be pared down”. Moreover, the Post dings Hagel for supposedly supporting the so-called sequestration cuts that are primed to go into effect next month and slash the Pentagon’s budget.
But the Post’s position is indicative of the mindlessness that surrounds the issue of defense spending. The sequestration cuts are significant, but it’s important to understand that if they were to go into effect, they would return the Pentagon to fiscal year 2007 levels. The idea that cuts of this nature are the height of irresponsibility is the height of insanity. In 2007, the Pentagon was fighting a war with more than 100,00 troops in Iraq. Today, there are no troops in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan is winding down, so the idea that defense spending should remain at the same level as when the US was fighting both of these wars is hard to sustain.
Beyond that point, the US today faces no serious security threat and, more importantly, confronts a world that has never been less violent, more safe and less likely to be afflicted by great power conflict than at any point in, well, human history. The US dramatically outspends the rest of the world on military hardware and, in the cases of America’s European and Far East allies, largely subsidizes their security needs. From this perspective, the potential secretary of defense nominee who should be of concern to the Post is one who doesn’t believe the Pentagon budget is bloated.
Luckily, however, for the Post’s editorial board, they were able to find a few people who hold this view – namely, members of the joint chiefs of staff who believe that the sequester would lead to “‘a severe and irreversible impact on the navy’s future,’ ‘a Marine Corps that’s below the end strength to support even one major contingency’ and ‘an unacceptable level of strategic and operational risk’ for the army”. But military leaders believing that a cut to the defense budget would lead to a lack of operational capability is an unsurprising as the toilet habits of bears and the religious persuasion of popes.
Of course, they believe this – one of their key job requirements is to scare Congress and journalists into believing that cuts to their damage would be catastrophic. Indeed, this is the job requirement of any government agency head. That the Post accepts such arguments at face value is stupefying.
Beyond the military budget, the Post hits Hagel for being out of step with the president on Iran policy. They cite his skepticism about the use of force to stop the country’s nuclear program (even though he recently co-signed an op-ed that quite clearly said that the use of force should be on the table), his support for diplomatic outreach to Iran and his suspicion of the efficacy of a crippling sanctions regime against Tehran.
This is an odd criticism for two key reasons. First, Hagel skepticism’s about the efficacy about the use of force against Iran is well-founded and is shared by the vast majority of top US military officials, as well as civilian leaders. Indeed, after 11 years of disastrous overseas wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a policy-maker who wasn’t dubious about starting new military adventures should be held in suspicion. Moreover, Hagel’s questioning of sanctions is quite right since they have proven generally to be an ineffective tool for changing state behavior – at the very least, they are certainly less effective than direct negotiations. On Iran, Hagel’s positions are not only well-founded; they are informed by the sort of firm grasp of international and military affairs that has perennially eluded the Post’s editorial board.
Second, and even more importantly, Hagel’s views on Iran are, as Ali Ghraib at the Daily Beast pointed out, practically identical to those to President Obama. Don’t believe me? Here’s what Hagel had to say about Obama’s Iran policy, “I think Obama is handling this exactly the right way.” If there is daylight between the President and Hagel on how to deter Iran’s nuclear aspirations, it appears to be only evident to the Washington Post.
In the end, the Post’s concern with Hagel is not that he is out of step with the president, but rather that he is out of step with the bipartisan foreign policy consensus in Washington for which the Washington Post has been one of the loudest and most obnoxious cheerleaders. This is a consensus that views American interests in a limitless manner, that sees no reason to place constraints on the utilization of American power, that fetishizes military solutions to difficult national security challenges, and that looks disapprovingly on any politician who advocates a foreign policy of modesty and restraint.
The fact that Chuck Hagel has so openly questioned this consensus is perhaps his most attractive attribute. In a town dominated by often-unexamined conventional wisdom, the appointment of Hagel to DoD would be a welcome relief. It’s small wonder so many long knives have come out against Hagel – but it’s even more reason for Obama to pick him as the country’s next secretary of defense.