Chuck Hagel’s confirmation process has been the most depressing episode in the Republican foreign-policy debate since George W. Bush was president, not least because the debate is still constrained by terms set by John McCain and impersonators such as Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte.
Hagel may be flawed, but Senate Republicans have largely subjected the would-be Obama defense secretary to a show trial for his modest dissents from the Bush administration as a GOP senator from Nebraska. Among many of Hagel’s former colleagues, the idea that Bush’s Iraq policy was anything less than an unqualified success somehow remains controversial.
Worse, none of the Tea Party freshmen took the opportunity to distinguish themselves from their colleagues in the hearings. This is to be expected of Marco Rubio, who has made his hawkish inclinations plain, but not the trio of senators endorsed by Ron Paul—Ted Cruz, Mike Lee, and his son Rand Paul.
All three of these senators joined the vast majority of Republicans in delaying Hagel’s nomination. Lee has said he will ultimately vote against Hagel, calling his positions “weak” and “dangerous.” Cruz has been too demagogic in his opposition even for Graham and McCain.
The bigger concern is what this means for these senators’ broader foreign-policy views. In the 1990s, Republicans used some lowest-common-denominator issues—congressional declarations of war, no troops under foreign command—to appeal to less interventionist conservatives drawn to Pat Buchanan, while remaining conventionally but covertly hawkish.
Even Bush famously called for a “humble foreign policy” and talked about “exit strategies” during the 2000 campaign, likely trying to minimize defections to Buchanan. Are Ron Paul voters being similarly played?
Hagel himself represents the kind of realist Republican who hasn’t always been particularly antiwar. He voted for the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, and national surveillance. In 2004 he called for reinstating the draft, albeit on the grounds of shared sacrifice across socioeconomic lines. Hagel’s gradual shift on Iraq was certainly important, but less decisive—and less reflected in his voting record—than Rep. Walter Jones’s.
Moreover, Hagel’s own performance at his confirmation hearings left much to be desired. To be sure, much of this had to do with the fact that the Obama administration pushed him to disavow rather than defend many of his positions. Few of us would sound eloquent disowning our own opinions and embracing someone else’s.
But how strong of a voice for foreign-policy restraint will Hagel be within the administration if he has already walked back many of his stands before taking office? And he seemed ill-prepared for obvious questions, something that cannot necessarily be blamed on White House efforts to censor him.
By contrast, Paul and Lee have voted against the Patriot Act, in favor of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, and for measures designed to remove or dilute the indefinite detention provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act. They have both sought to impose checks on warrantless wiretapping. Paul introduced and voted for a resolution to revoke the authorization of the Iraq War.
For his part, Paul has argued that the issue of extrajudicial killings under the domestic drone program is of more importance than the Hagel confirmation fight. And he has implied that his Hagel vote was motivated in part to win Republican support for extracting information from CIA director nominee John Brennan.
None of this is to say it’s not troubling that we haven’t seen a realist caucus emerge during the Hagel confirmation fight, one that pushes back against the more hysterical accusations or at least acknowledges the millions of Americans who don’t want another Iraq.
But it is worth noting that there are Republican senators currently serving who have gone further on foreign policy and civil liberties than Hagel ever did.
A failing of many Republican realists, from Jon Huntsman to Richard Lugar, is that for all they do to alienate the rest of their party, they seldom oppose wars when it matters most. At best they express regret after the fact, before reluctantly supporting the next one. Usually, they confine their complaints to the Sunday talk shows.
Perhaps Republicans who retain their conservative movement bona fides will be able to have more impact when it counts. Until that has been demonstrated, however, skeptics will expect another “humble foreign policy” let-down.
W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the forthcoming book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?