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?