Of all of defense secretary nominee Chuck Hagel’s “inquisitors” at yesterday’s Senate confirmation hearing, John B. Judis observes that Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the New Hampshire Republican, was “tough and fair” and well-mannered. I suppose this is superficially true. And yet I was utterly gobsmacked by the exchange.

Here’s a YouTube clip:

The infraction in question here is that Hagel, in a 2007 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said, “The core tenets of George Kennan’s ‘The Long Telegram’ and the strategy of containment remain relevant today. This is how we should have handled Saddam Hussein.” (I bolded the clause that Ayotte quoted, and presumably found damning.)

The speech in full (go ahead, read it!) should offend no one. It was a routine formulation of classical realist principles:

In the Middle East of the 21st Century, Iran will be a key center of gravity…and remain a significant regional power. The United States cannot change that reality. America’s strategic thinking and policies for the Middle East must acknowledge the role of Iran today and well into the future.

To acknowledge that reality in no way confuses Iran’s dangerous, destabilizing and threatening behavior in the region. Our differences with Iran are real. Iran is a state sponsor of terrorism and continues to provide material support to Hezbollah and Hamas. The President of Iran publicly threatens Israel’s existence and is attempting to develop the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. Iran has not helped stabilize the current chaos in Iraq and is responsible for weapons and explosives being used against U.S. military forces in Iraq.

Yet, America’s military might alone cannot successfully address these challenges or achieve any level of sustainable stability with Iran. The United States must employ a comprehensive strategy that uses all of its tools of influence within its foreign policy arsenal—political, diplomatic, economic, cultural, and military.

This is the way moderate Republicans and liberal internationalists talked about foreign policy challenges throughout the 1990s. It is the kind of rhetoric that President Clinton employed and, for the most part, the kind of rhetoric President Obama employs today. Now, it’s true, as was pointed out to Hagel ad infinitum yesterday, that the Obama administration does not profess a policy of containment toward Iran; it has vowed to prevent the regime from acquiring a nuclear weapon.

But Obama was not president in 2007. And Hagel, then still a senator, was free to ruminate on the “inventory,” as he put it yesterday, of options available to American diplomats and national security strategists.

“Was it that containment was one of the options?” Ayotte probed.

Hagel: “Yes, of course.”

This is damning?


Yes: Of course a strategy of containment is an option. So is an air attack or a land invasion tomorrow. Yet Ayotte strongly implied that the mere entertaining of the idea of containment was disqualifying. Containment ipso facto means appeasement, and to have said it’s worthy of consideration is a kind of thought crime. Consider: a member of the U.S. Senate, “the world’s most deliberative body,” thinks that it’s impermissible to actually deliberate foreign policy.

Add Ayotte’s exchange to Sen. John McCain’s confrontation with Hagel, in which McCain treated the arguable success of the Iraq surge as a priest would the historicity of the virgin birth, and we have the unmistakable voice of a school of foreign policy that operates more like an office of doctrinal enforcement.

These are dangerous people.