Back in 1998, Chuck Hagel, who had been Senator from Nebraska for two years, made news by criticizing the tactics of the Republican candidate for governor, Jon Christensen, who was running a negative ad campaign. The biggest threat to the American political system, Hagel said, were those who “debase and degrade the political process by straight-out lies and misleading spots on television. It’s a cancer to our system.” It’s darkly ironic that Hagel himself has faced very similar attacks from hawkish neoconservatives in the weeks since he was named as a likely nominee for secretary of Defense. But while these attacks represent an extremely distasteful side of Washington, it’s worth considering what they intended to achieve, and what they say about the current era of U.S. foreign policy.
As I see it, the goal of these attacks is twofold. The first, of course, is to enforce a rigid set of parameters for discussions over Israel-Palestine, in which any criticism of Israeli policy, even if it echoes (as Hagel’s does) common criticisms made by Israeli leaders themselves, is treated as tantamount to being “anti-Israel.” Others—notably Peter Beinart, Bernard Avishai, and Ali Gharib at the excellent Open Zion blog—have discussed this in great detail, so no need for me to go into it here except to note that it is in neither the U.S.’s nor Israel’s interest to have a policy discourse that is as constrained and anemic as Hagel’s attackers would prefer.
The idea that Hagel is “anti-Semitic”—an anonymous smear originally launched by neoconservative don Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard and dutifully amplified by various other Kristol-affiliated outlets like the Emergency Committee for Israel—is obviously false, something acknowledged by, among others, a Nebraska rabbi who has known Hagel for many years and a spokesman for the right-wing group Christians United for Israel.
In a broader sense, however, the attacks on Hagel represent an attempt by the neoconservative wing of the Republican Party to avoid a conversation over America’s changing role in the world. Over the past years, and especially during the recent presidential election, this faction has seen their expansive (and expensive) view of American hegemony increasingly marginalized as U.S. leaders grapple with constrained budgets, an electorate that has soured on costly foreign adventurism, and an international environment that has proven to be far less malleable to American whims and preferences than neocons have theorized. Indeed, as I wrote in these pages back in October, their own Republican presidential candidate used the foreign policy debate to distance himself from their views.
On these questions, Hagel’s record shows that he was ahead of the curve. Though he voted for the Iraq war, he was one of its earliest and most rigorous critics. Unlike Senator John McCain and other neoconservative supporters of the war, however, who continue to cling to what Matt Yglesias and Sam Rosenfeld termed (in an influential 2005 article in the Prospect) the “incompetence dodge”—the war was the right choice, but badly executed—Hagel was willing to face up to the fact that the Iraq war was a strategic failure, one that significantly empowered America’s enemies and dramatically undercut America’s influence in the region. The fact that this view is now held by a strong majority of Americans—as well, interestingly, by Israeli leaders across the political spectrum—only seems to make neocons madder.
On the issue of Iran, Hagel has been calling for talks with the country since 2001, a position that Obama successfully defended as a candidate and implemented as policy when he became president. Again, the fact that a broad majority of Americans now see this approach as the correct one only seems to enrage Hagel’s critics all the more.
By focusing their anti-Hagel activism on the issue of Israel, a country which enjoys broad support among Americans, neocons are trying to avoid a broader discussion on their views, which clearly don’t. As former Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control Ellen Tauscher told the New Yorker’s Connie Bruck, “They don’t have any credibility themselves, so they’re using the pro-Israel fig leaf as a way to gain credibility—and I just find that appalling.”
Clearly, Hagel’s record raises some questions for progressives. Like most Republicans, in the past he held deeply offensive views of LGBT Americans. Unlike most Republicans, however, he has apologized for those views (if one of the outcomes of this process is that cabinet nominees must now disavow past opposition to LGBT civil rights, then that’s a huge win for progressives). His past denial of climate-change also presents a concern, though as Ben Adler writes in The New Republic, there is reason to believe that Hagel’s views have evolved there as well.
Questions over Hegel’s views should appropriately be explored in hearings should he be nominated. In a sense, it’s sad that the attacks on Hagel have distracted the nation from the real discussion we should be having about his ability to lead the Defense Department amid the challenges of the next term—a smaller defense budget, an Afghanistan drawdown, and a recalcitrant Iran among them. This is just the sort of discussion that would be energized by hearings in which Hagel had the opportunity to explain and defend the views that his critics have termed controversial. It’s the sort of discussion that Americans deserve to hear.