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How the Chuck Hagel Brawl Exposes Neocons and Reveals the Limits of American Power

The kerfuffle over Hagel as a pick for Secretary of Defense does much to outline the contours of prevailing wisdom among the intellectual classes of DC and New York.
 
 
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Ever since Susan Rice’s botched nomination, it seems to be open season on President Obama’s top cabinet picks for a second term. As Russ Baker explained here, the substance-free fight over Ms. Rice revealed much more about her accusers and Washington than it did about her. Similarly, the recent kerfuffle over Chuck Hagel as a pick for Secretary of Defensedoes much to outline the contours of prevailing “wisdom” among the intellectual classes of DC and New York, and the clashing currents within post-Cold War foreign policy doctrine.

After the Obama administration floated the trial balloon of a Hagel nomination several weeks ago, various neoconservative publications and pundits have waged unremittingattacks on the pick. The campaign began when The Weekly Standard quoted an anonymous Senate aide calling Hagel anti-Semitic, and gained steam when the Wall Street Journal’s Brett Stephens echoed similar, albeit more diplomatic, sentiments. Bill Kristol’s side-PAC (he is the editor of the Standard), the Emergency Committee for Israel, bought ad time in the greater DC television market criticizing Hagel’s opposition to unilateral sanctions imposed on Iran. The Washington Post editorial boardinsinuated he was far too dovish for the post, citing his voting record on Iran sanctions and statements about Pentagon bloat.

These criticisms were soon buttressed by several seemingly progressive critiques of the former Senator in a not-so-odd alliance between liberals and neoconservatives against the pick (more on that below). The nomination seemed all but torpedoed until several former friends and staffers of Hagel’s fired reciprocal volleys in support, while the Obama administration observed from the sidelines, until today. Hagel’s allies outside the press read like a who’s-who of establishmentarians, from Bush Sr. National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft to former Reagan Secretary of Defense (and Carlyle Group chairman) Frank Carlucci.

What should be of particular interest to readers of WhoWhatWhy is not the substance (or lack thereof) behind the accusations, but the evidence they provide of what are and aren’t acceptable ideas in Washington these days.

The Record From Which the Needle was Torn

Mr. Hagel, a two term Republican Senator from Nebraska, seems as cut-from-the-establishment-cloth as any pick of recent memory. A Vietnam combat veteran and the recipient of two Purple Hearts, he is currently the chairman of the Atlantic Council and a professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His voting record while in the Senate is unremarkable, having maintained B-level ratingsfrom the American Conservative Union and National Taxpayers Union, two of the oldest traditionally conservative lobbying organizations in the country.

In a refreshing adherence to claimed ideology, Hagel opposed many of George W. Bush’s grandiose expansions of the federal government, including the No Child Left Behind Actand the (unpaid for) Medicare prescription drug bill. Hardly a member of the libertarian right, however, he voted for the Patriot Act and the Iraq invasion despite becoming an early critic once the occupation went sour.

His voting record aside, Hagel’s candor is what seems to have drawn most of the praise as well as the criticism of his putative nomination.  He openly spurned the gulag at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, saying it labeled America “an empire that pushes people around…[and that doesn’t] live up to [its] commitments to multilateral institutions.”  And he spoke of the need to cut the untouchable Pentagon budget, the imperative of ending the occupation of Afghanistan, the folly of regime change in Libya, and the urgency of diplomacy with Iran.

The quote that begot the WSJ and Weekly Standard’s label of anti-Semite came from an interview with Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Aaron David Miller for his 2008 book, “The Much Too Promised Land,” about the Arab-Israeli peace process. The Standard’sanonymous informer cherry-picked this quotation of Hagel’s from the book as proof of his belief in “a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls U.S. foreign policy”: “The political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”

When contacted by The Daily Beast’s Ali Gharib about the seized-upon quote, the book’s author responded, “seized upon is an understatement. It was hijacked.” As Gharib explains:

In the passage, Miller noted that few members of Congress are willing to publicly criticize AIPAC or Israel, but there are a few exceptions. “One who is willing is Chuck Hagel, the two-term Republican senator from Nebraska,” Miller wrote. “Of all my conversations, the one with Hagel stands apart for its honesty and clarity.” [The line in question] begins with this statement from Miller: “Hagel is a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values.” I asked Miller if he still viewed Hagel as “pro-Israel.” “I don’t think there’s a Senator of note in the Senate who is not pro-Israel,” he responded. “But there is a difference between a special relationship with Israel and an exclusive relationship with Israel. I believe in the former and Chuck Hagel believes the former.”

Despite the reassurances from Miller, more troubling accusations have come to light recently. Reporting in The Washington Free Beacon, a conservative online publication, on January 3, Adam Kredo quotes the hearsay of Marsha Halteman—director for military and law enforcement programs at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA)—as further evidence of ingrained prejudice. Describing a 1989 meeting with Hagel while he was president and CEO of the World USO, Halteman recalls a divisive meeting over the USO Haifa Center, in which “he said to me, ‘Let the Jews pay for it’.” Kredo continues:

“He essentially told us that if we wanted to keep the USO [in Haifa] open—and when I say ‘we’, he meant ‘the Jews’—he said the Jews could pay for it,” said Halteman, who recalled being taken aback by the comment.

In addition to the poor taste in word and sentiment, the article charges that Hagel attempted to shut down the otherwise successful USO mission in Haifa during his tenure. The Atlantic contacted the Israeli director of the Haifa USO during the period in question, who denied these claims, saying Hagel’s tenure “was an absolute gift from God.”

WhoWhatWhy contacted Ms. Halteman for further detail and corroboration about the incident. As of yet we have not received a response.

The Not So Odd Couple

Ms. Halteman’s unconfirmed accusation of anti-Semitism is not the only imputation of bigotry that has dogged Chuck Hagel’s nomination. The Republican LGBT advocacy group, Log Cabin Republicans (LCR), published a full-page ad in the New York Times on December 27 that attacked Hagel as anti-Israel, anti-gay, and soft on Iran. The ad quoted comments Hagel made 15 years ago about James Hormel, President Clinton’s openly gay then-nominee for US ambassador to Luxembourg:

“They are representing America [as ambassador]. They are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay — openly, aggressively gay.”

As Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald noted, the ad aroused much curiosity for its expensive purchase (published rates stipulate such a buy can cost in excess of six figures), the odd conglomeration of Middle East policy and LGBT advocacy for a group with no demonstrated prior concern for the former, and the group’s record of openly supporting GOP nominees with far more egregious anti-gay records than Hagel.

When questioned by Greenwald about the ad buy, the group’s Executive Director, R. Clark Cooper, affirmed that LCR did not pay for it out of existing funds, but that it was “being funded by a number of donors.” Cooper refused to identify them or whether they were first time donors. As for LCR’s objections to Hagel’s nomination in light of their support for more openly anti-gay Republicans, Cooper stated, “LCR is particularly concerned about Chuck Hagel … because of the role he would play in continuing to oversee the implementation of open service of the military,” despite their open support for presidential candidate Mitt Romney, an avowed advocate for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Just a couple weeks prior to the ad’s placement, the same R. Clark Cooper commended Chuck Hagel in an interview with the Gay City News, saying that “Hagel voted with us most of the time and there was no question he was committed to advancing America’s interests abroad.” Somewhere in the intervening weeks, an about-face occurred within LCR’s leadership, or at least their donor base. A similar reversal on Hagel was recently executed by outgoing gay Congressmember Barney Frank (D-Mass.).

The seemingly anti-gay remarks attributed to Hagel have united neoconservatives and some progressives—a superficially odd, albeit not unheard of collaboration —against the nomination. In the recent past, liberal ideals have been trotted out as mainstream media fodder for neoconservative campaigns, such as promoting “democracy in Iraq” as a justification for taking down Saddam Hussein or supporting “women’s rights in Afghanistan” as a justification for continuing the U.S. military presence there indefinitely.

But more than a few mainstream pundits who were neo-conned into supporting the Iraq invasion by such slogans are now reacting against the attacks on Chuck Hagel’s nomination. Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and famed arbiter of “centrism,” endorsed Hagel the day after Christmas. Nicholas Kristof also of the Times,Joe Klein of Time, Jim Fallows and Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, and John Judis ofThe New Republic have all proclaimed support, along with various paleo-conservatives and libertarians on the right.

So, if a substantial portion of the commentariat favors the nomination, and the legacy of the Iraq disaster still hovers over the capital, how does neoconservatism remain a force to be reckoned with in Washington today?

Useful Ideas and Idiots

Although varyingly defined at different points in history, neoconservatism is currently used to connote the zealous promotion of democracy and free markets abroad, by military force if necessary, to the virtual exclusion of other policy concerns. Despite mounds of evidence that neoconservatives both personally profit from such ventures and have a record of contradicting their own stated ideals, the ascendancy of neoconservatism within the foreign policy elite reveals much about the current institutional prerogatives of the national security establishment, and the corporations and individuals behind it.

It seems clear that Chuck Hagel’s views are well in line with the traditional, Northeastern establishment doctrines of foreign policy that held sway following the Second World War. As World War gave way to Cold War, the Soviet acquisition of a nuclear weapon gave the Kremlin an overt veto over many global designs of the U.S. As evidenced by the case of Cuba, the Soviet Union was able to leverage its much weaker economic and military position to one of parity with the U.S. on the world stage, securing a promise from President John F. Kennedy to never invade the troublesome island. In light of the nuclear stalemate, geopolitical strategy dictated a coolly calculated assessment of American practical and material interests vis-à-vis the capabilities of its power: the kind of calculations that govern the foreign policy approach known as realpolitik, as made so famous by Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger.

Political realism was the dominant foreign policy doctrine during the Cold War because it had to be. As the USSR entered its death throes in the 1980’s, a small coterie of intellectuals—like Bill Kristol and Francis Fukuyama—as well as some Reagan officials—like Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, and Richard Perle—were able to use the buzzwords of American propaganda (“Freedom,” “Democracy,” “Liberty”) to marshal military resources with the aim of removing global actors that had been nuisances to the imperial ambitions of the United States.

Without the Soviet Union to counter American force, the U.S. was able to launch a handful of invasions and military actions during the 1990’s that hitherto would have been impossible (Panama, for example). And this is when neoconservatism began its major as doctrine. To the layman, national interest, as defined by material and pragmatic concerns, is the obvious key to formulating and conducting foreign policy.  But when you have the ability and desire to invade an oil-rich country like Iraq and little hope of explaining the long-term strategic value of such an action, recourse to ideological justifications for what might otherwise be seen as a reckless exercise in imperial expansion becomes inevitable. And this obfuscation through ideological manipulation is something at which neoconservatives excel.

Which brings us back to the question at hand: how is it that neoconservatives continue to hold such sway in Washington? And why is Hagel seemingly so dangerous for them?

Despite widespread acknowledgment of the need to cut spending, and thereby begin to reduce the national debt, there is little appetite even among Tea Party types for military retrenchment anytime soon. Maintaining the United States military as the biggest and most sophisticated on the planet allows neoconservative policymakers to implement the global designs of their corporate paymasters.

Chuck Hagel is hardly an anti-colonialist, but his pragmatic understanding (as evinced by some of his statements and positions) of imperial overreach vis-à-vis the legitimate concerns of the state implies a less substantive role for our military. Although that sounds agreeable to the majority of Americans, as well as the traditional establishment, the post-9/11 growth of the national security establishment and adjoining private sector has engendered a new and powerful neoconservative lobby for an ever expanding U.S. military role on the world stage.

Chuck Hagel’s tepid questioning of the modern aggressive military posture since 9/11 is hardly a cause for peace activists to rejoice. Geopolitical realism of Kissinger’s mold is no less ruthless in dispatching state enemies and employing a resource calculus that leaves many bodies in its wake. Furthermore, Hagel will be serving at the pleasure of President Obama, who has made clear his determination to continue George W. Bush’s aggressive “war on terror,” and there is no indication that Hagel’s personal views will affect his implementation of Obama policy. But the current fight over a Chuck Hagel nomination can be seen as a litmus test of America’s priorities in the 21st century. It may also reveal whether the muted but legitimate criticisms he’s evinced can even be uttered in Washington’s contemporary militarist culture.

 
 
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