Hagel Unchained

Why do neocon Republicans hate Chuck Hagel so much? Because of what he would do as secretary of defense.

Many Republicans breathed a sigh of relief when Chuck Hagel, who had become the bête noire of the right for his criticisms of George W. Bush's administration, decided not to run again for his Nebraska Senate seat in 2008. But now an even worse prospect confronts Republicans, foremost among them Sen. John McCain, who has regularly tormented Barack Obama's administration. They may soon confront a Hagel unchained.

If reports are to be believed, President Obama may have discovered his foreign-policy kryptonite -- naming Hagel, who has been teaching at Georgetown University and whom Obama has called "a great friend of mine," to run the Defense Department. With Hagel at the helm, Obama could proceed even more quickly with cutting the defense budget and retrenching abroad, while largely neutering his Republican adversaries.

Like McCain, Hagel is a decorated Vietnam War veteran and a longtime Republican. But there the similarities end. Whatever personal friendship the two men may enjoy (though it's worth remembering that Hagel did not endorse McCain for the presidency in 2008), Hagel, who has drawn very different lessons from Vietnam than McCain, is his foreign-policy antipode. While McCain began his political career in the more cautious realist camp, he has steadily moved into the neocon tent, beginning with the Balkan wars of the 1990s. McCain, who gave the impression that he would want to intervene to stop Russia's invasion of Georgia during the 2008 presidential campaign, never seems to have seen a war he doesn't want to fight on behalf of democracy and human rights, whether it's in Iraq or Syria. He gives the distinct impression that he's on permanent active service in search of monsters to destroy abroad.

Not so Hagel. He voted for the Iraq war but quickly turned on the Bush administration, ultimately deeming it, in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, "incompetent." He made no secret of his contempt for Vice President Dick Cheney and Cheney's loopy pronouncements about how swimmingly the war was going. In 2005, he voted against confirming the egregious John Bolton to become Bush's ambassador to the United Nations.

Hagel's independent streak derives from the fact that his deepest loyalty is to the soldiers who actually fight the battles that Washington politicians direct them to wage. And like Henry Stimson, a Republican who served in Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration as secretary of war, Hagel believes in bipartisanship and compromise. Those traits have not exactly endeared him to his former brethren in the conservative movement who thirst for martial glory, at least from the sidelines.

So for much of the past decade, Hagel -- despite a lifetime rating of 84 percent from the American Conservative Union -- has been a prickly presence on the right, a traditional realist as opposed to the crusading neocons who have, by and large, co-opted much of the GOP's foreign-policy brain trust. Hagel, you could say, has been trying to wage a lonely insurgency inside his own party to bring it back to reality. It has earned him brickbats such as the "anti-Republican Republican" from the Weekly Standard's Stephen F. Hayes, the author of a hagiography of Cheney. Meanwhile, the conservative National Review has been steadily denouncing him as well. It has depicted Hagel as a Trojan horse. Most recently, it warned about his "increasing coziness with the Obama administration, which can be traced to the 2008 campaign" and suggested that he is a wimp when it comes to dealing with Iran.

There can be no doubting that Hagel has moved toward Obama. But given that Obama has adhered more closely to the realist precepts of Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft than Republicans themselves, it can hardly be described as a sinister, traitorous, or even startling development. On the contrary, it seems like a natural evolution. Since 2009, he has served as co-chairman of the president's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. And Hagel's moderate tone jibes well with Obama's. Hagel, for example, voted in 2007 against labeling Iran's Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization -- he wants to keep the lines open to Iran for diplomatic negotiations. He believes in the perils of global warming. And he believes in a Middle East peace process -- in 2006, he said in an op-ed, "until we are able to lead a renewal of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, mindless destruction and slaughter will continue in Lebanon, Israel and across the Middle East" -- which is why he's attracting the ire of pro-Israel groups such as AIPAC for his refusal to dismiss Palestinian aspirations for their own state. As the Daily Beast's Eli Lake reports, "In 2009, Hagel signed onto a letter from the U.S. Middle East Project that urged Obama to begin talks with Hamas, a U.S. designated terrorist group, in an effort to revive the peace process."

But having torpedoed Susan Rice's nomination, it seems improbable that conservatives will be able to sink Hagel, particularly since he was one of their own -- a Republican senator. And pro-Israel organizations would be demonstrating the limits of their own power if they attempt to pillory Hagel. If anything, his plucky views are a sign of how politically correct discussions about foreign affairs have become in the GOP, where the slightest deviation from orthodox thinking is treated as a grave heresy. He belongs to the dwindling realist camp of Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Brent Scowcroft. It's also another sign of how far the GOP has drifted from the tenets that once ensured it dominance in debates with Democrats. In abandoning foreign affairs realism, the party has also abandoned political realities and ceded the field to Obama.

Unlike Leon Panetta, who has been loath to cut the Pentagon's budget, Hagel would probably tackle the project with fervor. He would also be a likely opponent of direct American intervention in Syria and push for as small a remaining military force in Afghanistan as possible. His entire thrust is to emphasize diplomacy over brute power. Hagel's doctrine is crystal clear: No matter how well-intentioned America may be, it cannot single-handedly impose democracy abroad.

If Obama does choose Hagel in the end, it will partly testify to how much the Democrats have altered beyond recognition in the past few years in commanding the center on foreign affairs. And Obama will likely enjoy his own revenge against the GOP for noisily challenging his bona fides over the past four years. The irony can hardly be lost on the president: Who better to help implement a traditional Republican foreign policy in a Democratic administration than Hagel?

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National Security

Chuck Hagel Wants to Be Dwight Eisenhower

We read the senator's 2008 book on defense so that you don't have to.

What would SecDef Chuck Hagel do? With all the speculation, FP decided to go back to his 2008 manifesto, America: Our Next Chapter.

America presents Hagel as an Eisenhower conservative -- low budgets and no wars. A prominent critic of the war in Iraq, he characterizes the invasion as "the triumph of the so-called neoconservative ideology." With frequent reference to his experience as a drafted infantryman in Vietnam, Hagel gives the impression that he opposes any war of choice. That put him at odds with the Bush administration, but it may also put him at odds with the liberal interventionists in the Obama camp.

Nor is he a natural fit with the Obama administration's signature Asia pivot policy. He is wary of any strategy that smacks of "economic, political, and military containment" of China: "this kind of belligerence would be a disaster for our two nations and for the world.... such a policy would fail." Of course, the Pentagon has been increasing its naval presence in the Pacific, which, however many times U.S. officials deny it, looks like military containment, at least in Beijing.

On Iran, Hagel seems even more dovish -- though his thoughts may have changed in the four years since the book's publication. He writes at length about his concerns over policies that back Iran into a corner. "Isolating nations is risky," he writes. "It turns them inward, and makes their citizens susceptible to the most demagogic fear mongering." The answer, he says, is engagement. "Distasteful as we may find that country's rulers, the absence of any formal governmental relations with Iran ensures that we will continue to conduct this delicate international relationship through the press and speeches, as well as through surrogates and third parties, on issues of vital strategic importance to our national interests. Such a course can only result in diplomatic blind spots that will lead to misunderstandings, miscalculation, and, ultimately, conflict."

So Hagel supports direct negotiations with Iran. He laments the lack of diplomatic ties and toys with the idea of a consulate in Tehran. He also reflects fondly on meetings he had with Iranian ambassadors to the United Nations in New York.

Hagel even flirts with the idea that an Iranian bomb wouldn't be the end of the world. "[T]he genie of nuclear armaments is already out of the bottle, no matter what Iran does. In this imperfect world, sovereign nation-states possessing nuclear weapons capability (as opposed to stateless terrorist groups) will often respond with some degree of responsible, or at least sane, behavior. These governments, however hostile they may be toward us, have some appreciation of the horrific results of a nuclear war and the consequences they would suffer." Hagel's realpolitik might make Stephen Walt proud, but it may unnerve those on both sides of the aisle who believe that Iran must be stopped before it gets a nuclear weapon. Even President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran cannot be contained.

Many conservatives will recoil at the praise Hagel lavishes on the United Nations, and indeed, if secretary of defense falls through, he could well be on the next U.N. ambassador shortlist. Though he concedes it has "limitations and problems" and frequently "succumbs to the worst forms of political posturing," Hagel waxes poetic about its essential role in building coalitions on pressing issues from nuclear proliferation to global poverty, and praises its work in peacekeeping and post-conflict transitions. "[T]he United Nations," he writes, "is the only international organization that can help bring the consensus that is indispensable in finding solutions and resolving [international security] crises." Hagel's love for the institution extends back to high school, when he participated in model United Nations; he represented the Soviet Union, to hone his debate skills. As for the critics, Hagel's heard it all before, during the run-up to the Iraq war, when he and others were told there was "[n]o time for diplomacy or to build a coalition, that would be selling out our national interest to the weak-kneed United Nations!"

Oddly, Hagel almost completely avoids the subject of Afghanistan. What he does say is that it is grinding down the U.S. military, both physically and psychologically, wasting money at an alarming rate, and that he still believes an opportunity was missed when the United States refused to negotiate with the Taliban in 2003. People looking for answers about how Hagel feels about the war that could be his to wind down would best look elsewhere, but he does give the impression that he would be happy to be done with it.

The military should be happy to have him, though he concedes that the Pentagon needs to trim the fat. "Bloated budgets and lack of effective oversight and review are symptoms of deeper, structural inadequacy in our military posture," he writes, but his recommendations seem to amount to closing loopholes in contracting. In fact, he suggests growing the force to reduce U.S. reliance on security contractors. For all his talk of low budgets, his ire falls mostly on entitlement spending. "Our military has been pushed beyond the breaking point," he writes. He discusses his desire to share military burdens beyond the 1 percent of Americans who serve, better incentivize retention, and build a modern, adaptive force.

To this end, he cites President Eisenhower's farewell address (yes, the "military-industrial complex" speech). Throughout the book, Eisenhower emerges as the lodestar for Hagel's ideology. He's characterized as "a paragon as a soldier and a general, and as a leader, he understood...that war, once it is unleashed, is always uncontrollable, unpredictable, and painful far beyond the predications of those who beat the drum the loudest." Hagel wouldn't mind being thought of this way himself...someday.

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