Michael Hirsh asks a question that is on no one’s mind:

All of which raises a question: Is Chuck Hagel a pacifist?

Taken at face value, this is a silly question. Not only would Hagel not claim to be a pacifist, but nothing in his record suggests that he is one. It’s a misrepresentation of Hagel’s record to suggest that he is a pacifist, and it’s frankly insulting to principled pacifists to suggest that he is one of them.

This is worth discussing a little more, because of what it tells us about the limits of our foreign policy debate and the overwhelming bias in favor of military action that prevails in that debate. Automatic supporters of any and every foreign war are considered to be “mainstream,” “serious,” and credible people. If the name of one these people had been reported as a likely Defense Secretary nominee, no one would have given it a second thought. Those that have any reservations or criticisms are categorized in the most extreme and dismissive terms. Have doubts about continuing a pointless and unnecessary war? You might be a pacifist. Unquestioningly endorse the most hawkish and militarized policies? You’re a bipartisan leader and probably a statesman at that.

Hagel criticized the increase in the number of troops in Afghanistan, just as he criticized the “surge” in Iraq, and events have proven that he was right on both counts. That doesn’t make him a pacifist. It means that he is a better judge of when a war is no longer fighting than he has been when it comes to deciding whether or not to support a war in the first place. Would a pacifist vote for the Iraq war authorization? Obviously not. Would a pacifist support a completely illegal war in Kosovo for the sake of NATO’s credibility? Again, no.

To be honest, a thoroughgoing pacifist would have reached the the right answer in major debates on matters of war and peace more often over the last 15 years than Hagel did. If pacifists err too much on the side of not using force, Hagel’s record in the Senate was one of erring on the side of supporting the use of force. He differed from his Republican colleagues in late 2006 and 2007 in that he recognized the futility of the Iraq war back then when most of them still refuse to do that. For the record, that doesn’t represent “early opposition” to the invasion. The early opponents of the invasion were the ones that voted against it, protested against it, and wrote against it before it happened. I don’t think Hagel should be criticized and smeared unfairly for being somewhat more reasonable on foreign policy than many others in his party, but he shouldn’t be portrayed as something radically different from what he is, either.

There is a range of alternatives to militarized foreign policy and perpetual war that are far short of an absolute pacifist position, but surely the U.S. would benefit from putting the burden of proof on those agitating for war rather than those arguing in favor of peace. Insofar as Hagel has gradually moved towards the latter position, his appointment is not only welcome but long overdue. If Hagel is now much more cautious about sending Americans to fight in foreign wars than he was ten years ago, he should be praised for coming to his senses, but there is no reason to overstate or exaggerate this change.