The news that Obama will go ahead and nominate Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense is exciting beyond measure. No matter how the battle over his confirmation goes, it will be educational and point the country in a better direction. To have capitulated without a fight to Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin—the twin nerve-centers of the anti-Hagel opposition—would have signaled to the world a neutering of Obama’s presidency by the Israel lobby, a terrible result for the president and the country as a whole.
The campaign against Hagel has been loud, persistent, but devoid of serious substance. Hagel is said, according to one continually recycled smear, to be a sort of borderline anti-Semite; the chief bit of evidence for this damning charge being that, in discussing AIPAC’s influence on Capitol Hill, he used the phrase “Jewish lobby” instead of “Israel Lobby”. But while that phrase, the “Jewish lobby” does sound awkward now, it was the very one used by AIPAC to describe itself in the 1980s, the time period when Hagel was presumably first forming his vocabulary on these issues.
The charges of Hagelian insensitivity to gay rights, based on several of past votes and one 1990s comment, have largely evaporated. Hagel, like most of the country, has “evolved” on the issue. If the question comes up in the hearings, it will be as a coming out party for acceptance of the gay rights revolution by the Republican establishment. Those who have been involved in the struggle will cheer, as indeed will many who have done no more than observe, often skeptically, from the sidelines.
That many of the attacks on Hagel are either trivial or scurrilous does not mean the ideological questions raised by his nomination are trivial. They are not. The cleavages uncovered by the Hagel choice exist within both parties: there are Republicans who, after the fact, became skeptical about the Iraq war and the ideologists who fomented it, just as there are important Democrats, Chuck Schumer for instance, whose reflexive support of Israel will give him little enthusiasm for Obama’s selection. It is not yet clear how senators of either type will vote. But does anyone believe that GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell didn’t know that Chuck Hagel was an active Iraq war opponent, a skeptic about signing every AIPAC generated letter, and a general foe of the neoconservative foreign policy vision when he described Hagel in 2007 as “one of the premier foreign policy voices [and] one of the giants of the United States Senate” while adding, “Many of the predictions Chuck Hagel made about the [Iraq] war came true.”
Mitch McConnell on Sunday said that Hagel will receive “a fair hearing”—which is as much as he could say about any controversial nominee put forth by Obama. Of course some of the most hawkish Republicans—Lindsay Graham, John McCain, Texas Tea Partyite Ted Cruz—have already signaled their hostility. But in the lengthy sparring before the nomination, as Obama endlessly tested the waters, Hagel garnered an extraordinary amount of vocal, enthusiastic support from the foreign policy establishment, from former cabinet officers, diplomats, and military men. This outpouring was by no means preordained; in fact its emergence was the critical revelation of the last two weeks.
Of course many knew there existed circles of Washington officialdom, in the bipartisan establishment which won the Cold War without blowing up the world, which were unenthusiastic about an American foreign policy which eschewed real diplomacy, which rued the neocon capture of the Washington Post editorial page. But no one knew whether this group could still make itself heard in any way that counted. But heard it was. Editorials were written. Public letters were organized, and publicized. Hagel has received the enthusiastic backing of four former national security advisors (two who served Republican presidents), a lengthy list of former diplomats, including several ambassadors to Israel, of several former prominent senators David Boren, Nancy Kassebaum Baker, Gary Hart, former Fed chair Paul Volker, former Trade Representative Carla Hills. These are major foreign policy voices from both Republican and Democratic administrations. The Republican signatories made it clear there remains a significant part of party not spoken for by the Tea Party or Jennifer Rubin or the uberhawks at the Weekly Standard. They reminded one of that telling moment, late in his second term, when George W. Bush began to refer to Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer as “the bomber boys“—ruefully conscious, well after the fact, that following their counsel had wrecked his presidency.
Hagel’s nomination almost guarantees a substantial and meaningful debate about foreign policy–something which has not taken place inside the Senate for years. Much of this will touch on Iran. Last week Zbigniew Brzezinski, a Hagel backer and one of the country’s most brilliant foreign policy minds, expressed hope that the Secretary of Defense and State confirmation hearings would allow a full exploration of the Iran question, and seek to at least explore whether U.S. military strikes on Iran would be effective and at what cost. Brzezinski poses the following questions:
● How effective are U.S. military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities likely to be, with consequences of what endurance and at what human cost to the Iranian people?
● What might be Iran’s retaliatory responses against U.S. interests, and with what consequences for regional stability? How damaging could resulting instability be to European and Asian economies?
● Could a U.S. attack be justified as in keeping with international standards, and would the U.N. Security Council — particularly China and Russia, given their veto power — be likely to endorse it ?
● Since Israel is considered to have more than 100 nuclear weapons, how credible is the argument that Iran might attack Israel without first itself acquiring a significant nuclear arsenal, including a survivable second-strike capability, a prospect that is at least some years away?
● Could some alternative U.S. strategic commitment provide a more enduring and less reckless arrangement for neutralizing the potential Iranian nuclear threat than a unilateral initiation of war in a combustible regional setting?
Hagel is known to be skeptical about the value of war with Iran. Obama has in his first term essentially evaded the issue by repeatedly saying that all options are on the table while letting the most hawkish parts of this own administration limit the flexibility of America’s negotiations. Many worry he has put the country on a slow motion track to war, when the consequences of war are likely to be far worse for American interests than those of simply containing Iran, as we once did China and the Soviet Union. Hagel under the gun will assure that the questions Brzezinski raises are aired—and if he is confirmed, will continue to be aired for the duration of his tenure in office.
At the emotional center of all this is Israel: concern for it the primal source of the antagonism to Hagel. In an ironic twist, the Senate will be debating Hagel as Israelis go to the polls, and if the pre-election indicators are correct, Israelis are likely to choose leaders who confirm, by their rhetoric and positions, the country’s seemingly irredeemable turn towards a hard-core racist direction. This is a desperate time for many of Israel’s liberal American admirers, as the Jewish state, as if driven by a malign and mysterious force, inexorably turns itself into the kind of polity which would be censured and shunned by most Americans if it came to power anywhere in democratic Europe.
In short, the next few weeks will be a turning point—as critical, as fascinating to future historians, as the last presidential election itself. Indeed more so, as critical as anything which has happened since the neocons were able to seize the direction of the Bush presidency in the months after 9/11.