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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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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.

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