Barack Obama & Chuck Hagel: The Era of Big Foreign Policy is Over

9 January 2013

Republicans objecting to Chuck Hagel’s nomination to serve as the new US Defense Secretary have only themselves to blame. Having run Susan Rice out of the running to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, there’s no way President Obama could stomach losing a second high-profile nomination before he’s even formally accepted his second term.

That’s a trivial detail. More importantly, the objections to Hagel’s nomination are a useful reminder why, at least in terms of foreign policy, this present bunch of Democrats is preferable to their Republican opponents.

According to the feverish GOP reaction against Hagel, the Nebraskan is an anti-semite whose views lie outside the Washington “mainstream”. The former charge is an absurdity, not least since if Hagel is an anti-semite then so are Israelis who lie to Benjamin Netanyahu’s right. The latter charge might be considered a badge of honour given the performance of the Washington “mainstream” in recent years.

Actually, of course, Hagel’s views generally lie well within the “mainstream” and though he has doubtless drifted left in recent years that is a) a response to the failure of Republican-led foreign policy and b) as nothing compared to how the GOP has drifted to the right.

In 2000, Hagel served as National Co-Chairman for John McCain’s presidential campaign. Now McCain says Hagel can scarcely be considered a Republican (even though Hagel briefly contemplated a presidential run of his own as late as 2008). As tends to be the case these days, McCain diminishes himself almost every time he appears on the national stage. His self-inflicted decline has been a sorry business.

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Of course, the real reason for opposing Hagel is that he proved more prescient about the Iraq War (though he voted for it too) than most of his opponents (and, er, me). In 2002 Hagel warned:

“If disarmament in Iraq requires the use of force, we need to consider carefully the implications and consequences of our actions. The future of Iraq after Saddam Hussein is also an open question. Some of my colleagues and some American analysts now speak authoritatively of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq, and how Iraq can be a test case for democracy in the Arab world. How many of us really know and understand much about Iraq, the country, the history, the people, the role in the Arab world? I approach the issue of post-Saddam Iraq and the future of democracy and stability in the Middle East with more caution, realism and a bit more humility […] Imposing democracy through force in Iraq is a roll of the dice. A democratic effort cannot be maintained without building durable Iraqi political institutions and developing a regional and international commitment to Iraq’s reconstruction. No small task.”

Well, quite. This doesn’t make Hagel a dove. Far from it. In 1999, for instance, he was quite happy to contemplate sending American ground forces into Kosovo. And, of course, he supported Iraq even as he warned of its dangers. As doves go, Hagel has talons. (So, of course, does Obama and the new Secretary of State, John Kerry).

Of course by the standards of off-the-wall conservatism, Hagel’s a peacenik but that merely highlights the extent to which much of the GOP has retreated into a coccoon of permanent self-delusion.

To the extent that Hagel has only tepid enthusiasm for the prospect of confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions militarily the hawks doubtless have a point when they suggest Hagel’s likely confirmation nudges that prospect back a minute or two. Nevertheless, there are only two things that really need to be said about Iran: no-one wants them to get the bomb and no-one wants to go to war with them either. The difficulty is that there are few carrots that will persuade them to give up their ambitions while logic suggests the available sticks can only persuade them to redouble their nuclear efforts. Hagel’s appointment can’t change this.

Politically, however, his nomination is a smart move on the part of the President. He gets a heartland Republican – who is also a Vietnam veteran – of the type almost designed to appeal to medium-information voters who will appreciate this lick of bipartisan cabinet-making and be impressed both by Hagel’s own record and, equally, dismayed by the vehemence of the GOP’s reaction against Hagel. Win-win for the White House.

Hagel’s ascent is another reminder – if you needed one – that Obama’s foreign policy is closer to George HW Bush than George W Bush. It’s also of a piece with his overall philosophy: grand or transformational ideas are out, quiet realism and pragmatism are in. The revolutionaries were the dreamers who held sway in Dubya’s first term. Hagel (and Kerry) are a sign that foreign policy is returning to normal.

Having been marginalised in the early GWB years, the DC foreign policy establishment is back in command. Hagel outside the mainstream? Hardly. Like his predecessors Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, Hagel is a pillar of the DC establishment. His appointment, however, is another reminder that the guys who made their own reality are out; the men who accept – gloomily if necessary – actual reality are back in charge. If the GOP hadn’t veered so far right, Hagel and Kerry would be seen for what they are: old-fashioned DC-establishment types eminently qualified (by Washington’s standards) for their new posts.



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Show comments
  • Roy

    This is irrelevant against the latest Obama rumble that he intends to change the constitution to suit his agenda. That will be a trick to cause a flurry.

    • cg

      What are you smoking?

  • Augustus

    This new occupant at the Pentagon brings with him a new set of core convictions which fly in the face of the deep social and ideological bond between the U.S. and Israel that has governed bilateral relations for many decades. Israel will have to brace itself for this new reality, and hope that other power brokers inside the administration and Congress will continue to provide Israel with the safety net it needs to address this new challenge.

    • cg

      If Israel continues on the Netanyahu policy of confrontation then I’m afraid it is doomed. Hagel is a much better friend to Israel than the loonies like Kristol who want to annex the West Bank and live in a state of war and fear forever. Being cruel to your friends in order to be kind can be a good thing, can’t it?

      • Augustus

        Hagel’s appointment is a classic choice compatible with the Obama administration’s policies. In his second term he will have finally turned his back on the Bush era. But these new nominations could well be disastrous for a nation that, since Obama’s election in 2008, has been consistently reduced from being the world’s greatest economy and looked to for its role since the end of WWII as the world’s policeman, exerting its power to thwart despots and others that would threaten world peace.
        America may be turning its back on military adventurism, but Israel’s interests aren’t changing, and neither is Iran. The centrifuges continue spinning in the land of the ayatollahs. Their dream of
        attaining nuclear weapons remains, as does their dream of seeing Israel wiped
        off the map.

  • Robert Tannochside

    Can’t agree with you more – the republican party today is so far out that there’s no comparison in UK politics. And Cameron knows that too- so does the rest of Europe. Pity some of your colleagues don’t.
    McCain and his Amigo Lindsey Graham are pathetic and not fit to tie Hagel’s shoes. McCain – as you say, makes a fool of himself every time he opens his mouth and should be held accountable for all the stupid things he has said and done – like having Sarah Palin as a running mate and God knows how many wars we would have started if he was in charge. He is also petulant and can’t stand the fact that he lost to Obama.

    Glad to see there’s some common sense on this mag

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