Voice

What the Hagel fight does and doesn't mean

The war of words about the nomination of Chuck Hagel will undoubtedly continue for some time, even though his confirmation by the Senate looks overwhelmingly likely at this point. I'm standing by my earlier comments on the case, but here are a couple of additional thoughts on what it does and doesn't mean.

First, as I noted a week or so ago, I don't think Hagel's appointment implies any shift in policy direction. It's been clear for quite some time what the general thrust of Obama's national security policy is going to be: trimming defense, pivoting to Asia, rejecting preventive war with Iran, and striving to rebuild at home. To the extent that he used the sword overseas, it was through limited, surgical means like special forces and drones and not big U.S. deployments. (The Afghan surge is the exception, of course, but I think Obama learned his lesson on that one). 

That's the general approach he wanted Gates and Panetta to pursue, and that's the same strategy that he's chosen Hagel to continue. Given Hagel's basic world-view, experience, and savvy, he's an excellent choice. There won't be war with Iran, there will be defense cuts, and there will be an earnest effort to get allies in key areas to do more for the collective defense. There won't be a big push for Israel-Palestinian peace (too many obstacles, too many other things to do). Bottom line: the appointment of Hagel (and Kerry and Brennan) signals no big change in policy direction.

Second, the real question with the fight over Hagel is whether it is the beginning of a thaw in foreign policy discourse inside the American establishment. Until the Hagel case, ambitious foreign policy wannabes understood that one either had to be completely silent about the "special relationship" with Israel or one had to be an open and vocal supporter. The merest hint that you had independent thoughts on this matter would make you slightly suspect at best or provoke overt accusations that you were an anti-semite, effectively derailing any political ambitions you might have had. The result was an absurdly truncated debate in Washington, where one couldn't even talk about the role of the Israel lobby without getting smeared. Indeed, one couldn't even ask if unconditional U.S. support for Israel was in Israel's best interest, let alone America's, despite the growing evidence that its settlement policy was threatening its long-term future.

By making such ludicrous charges about Hagel, however, neoconservatives and other extremists made it clear just how nasty, factually ignorant, and narrow-minded they are, and how much they believed that the commitment to Israel ought to trump other foreign policy priorities. And it wasn't just the absurd claim that Hagel was anti-semitic; it was the bizarre suggestion that a key job requirement for the U.S. Secretary of Defense was a deep and passionate attachment to a foreign country. The attacks on Hagel triggered a long-overdue reaction from a remarkably wide circle -- including many staunch defenders of Israel -- who were clearly disgusted by the smear tactics and aren't willing to quail before them anymore.

Furthemore, as Peter Beinart noted yesterday, Hagel's appointment might also dilute the perceived need for policy wonks to seem hawkish and bellicose even when skepticism about the use of force is called for. While no dove, Hagel has been intelligently critical of sending young men and women into harm's way without a clear strategy and compelling national interest. His appointment might open up foreign policy debate to a much wider range of views, instead of the narrow-minded bellicosity that has prevailed since 9/11 (if not before).

It's too soon to tell how far-reaching this shift might be. No doubt Hagel's opponents will try to make him express his undying fidelity to Israel during his hearings, in an effort to restore the previous political orthodoxy. But it's a losing cause, especially when Israel itself is about to elect the most right-wing government in its history and when Americans of many political stripes are beginning to understand that the "special relationship" may in fact have become a form of assisted suicide. For the record, I hope that's not the case. Avoiding it will require the United States to be able to speak more honestly on this entire subject, and I hope the Hagel affair opens the door to a far more open, fact-based, and smear-free debate on the entire subject of U.S. foreign and defense policy, including our perenially hamstrung approach to the greater Middle East.

Unrelated note:  I will be traveling in Asia for the next eight days, and blogging will be hit-or-miss while I'm away. Next stop: Singapore.

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Stephen M. Walt

Blogs and beer

When Andrew Sullivan announced last week that he was taking his uber-blog, The Dish, independent and relying solely on reader subscriptions to fund the operation, the first thing I thought of was...

Beer.

Not because the announcement made me yearn for a nice IPA, but because it made me wonder whether what is happening to the media environment is in some ways analogous to the extraordinary improvements in brewmaking over the past couple of decades, especially here in North America.

Back in my youth, beer in America was a consistently bland and homogeneous product. Watery lagers predominated, because the big brewing companies all sought to appeal to the median drinker. There just wasn't much difference between Bud, Miller, Schlitz, etc., which is why beer like Coors -- which had even less flavor but was hard to get in much of the country -- could become a fad for awhile. Beer snobs sometimes drank imports like Beck's or Guinness, but the major U.S. brands were boring, conventional, and competing to be more-or-less like each other. Kinda like Detroit's Big Three automakers or the three major TV networks.

Enter the microbrewery revolution. Beginning in the 1980s, enterprising Americans in search of good beer began drawing on artisanal brewing traditions and techniques from Europe, leading to an explosion of small craft breweries whose main selling point was creativity and diversity. Not to mention taste. Instead of trying to be like everyone else, microbrews thrived by presenting unique and interesting products that could actually hold a beer fan's interest.  Instead of putting out a cheap product to be swilled in front of the TV or at a football game, microbrewers sought to produce something you could savor, discuss, and get seriously passionate about. No wonder I haven't sipped a Bud in years. Even the Obama White House has caught the bug, producing its own Honey ale in recent years. 

So too with blogs. As Sullivan has realized, you don't have to be connected to some big media giant like the New York Times or the Economist  in order to have a significant readership. It helps to be part of a well-known brand, of course but it's not essential, especially if you're more interested in appealing to a smaller group of engaged readers than in grabbing as much market share and advertising revenue as you can.

Furthermore, as the diverse set of writers that Sullivan often features on his blog illustrate, those who work primarily in the blogosphere are usually more interesting, provocative, willing to experiment, and well-informed than the mainstream commentators and pundits writing for the big media outlets. There are exceptions, of course, but I'm constantly impressed by how many smart people and good writers now inhabit the internet, and I frequently find myself in awe of how well so many of them use language and how much genuine pleasure one can get from reading them. By contrast, outstanding writing is becoming harder to find in a lot of mainstream media platforms, and its almost an endangered species in the hallowed halls of academe. It's not that they are bad writers, it's just that they are mostly so cautious, predictable, and bland. You know: like PBR.

Given the effectiveness of modern search engines, interested citizens can get lots of information from the web if they're willing do a little bit of dedicated trolling, which in turn makes it harder for governments, interest groups, or big media conglomerates to control discourse anymore. And that's why authoritarian governments in countries like China or Iran have worked so hard to slap restrictions on this free-wheeling environment, lest their own actions and legitimacy get undermined by the unconstrained flow of ideas.

None of this is big news by now, and Sullivan isn't the first blogger to rely solely on reader support. He's just the most visible and prominent, and his experiment reminds us that the information revolution that we are all living through is still in its early stages. But I hope Sullivan's venture succeeds and that others follow his lead. I don't know what the information industries will look like a decade or two into the future, but it's certain to be different than it is today and a lot different than it was when I was a kid. I'm already reconciled to the fact that I'll eventually have to give up my cherished morning newspapers and get almost everything in digitized form. I'll heave a nostalgic sigh when that happens, but in the end I think it will be for the best. Why? Because I also believe that the open exchange of information and ideas eventually leads to greater collective wisdom and better public policies. For this reason, the break-up of big media oligopolies and the proliferation of independent voices is a good thing.

And on that happy note, I think I'll have a beer.

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