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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.

US Senator Chuck Hagel visits Amman in July 2008. Officials say President Obama will nominate former Republican senator Hagel as defense secretary to succeed Leon Panetta.


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 board insinuated 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.”

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