Michael Rubin continues the assault on Hagel, saying that he lacks “a moral compass in international affairs”:

Hagel’s gut instincts are even worse: He is not naïve like Kerry, but rather cold and callous when it comes to human rights. His instincts are to dismiss his opponents’ worst excesses as a domestic affair. Hagel embraces traditional appeasement, unaware that rather than satiate dictators, it only emboldens them. It won’t take long for dictators to understand that, with both Kerry and Hagel at the helm, they will have carte blanche to repress and murder their own people in a manner unseen for decades.

Hagel’s views are being grossly misrepresented here. That isn’t surprising, but it still deserves a response. Hagel has rejected the lazy, common conflation of diplomatic engagement with appeasement. He repudiates the latter. What does Hagel mean by engagement? James Joyner reported on his recent speech at the Atlantic Council:

The former Republican Senator from Nebraska could have been speaking to his former colleagues when he insisted, “Engagement won’t fix all problems, but engagement isn’t appeasement or surrender or even negotiation—it’s a bridge-building process, an opportunity to better understand” others on the basis of “mutual self respect.”

The most important error Rubin makes is the assumption that engagement mainly benefits the regime being engaged over the long term. Cutting off contacts with other regimes doesn’t hasten their downfall or weaken their hold on power. On the contrary, such regimes can take advantage of attempts at isolation to suppress dissent, consolidate power, and rally their nations behind them. It is not the purpose of engagement to undermine other regimes. The purpose is and should be to advance the interests of the United States. It is more likely that authoritarian regimes will gradually lose their grip on power if the people in their countries are exposed more regularly to contacts with other nations than if they are shut off from them.

Repressive regimes will engage in brutal crackdowns and will violently suppress challenges to their control. That isn’t going to change, and it will happen no matter who occupies different Cabinet posts or the White House. That isn’t something that the U.S. can normally prevent, nor does the U.S. have the resources to police how all these regimes act in their own countries, but it is something that the U.S. might be able to limit to some degree if it were in a position to influence these regimes. Refusing to engage with these regimes deprives the U.S. of influence. It deprives these regimes of nothing.

Obviously, it’s false to say that Hagel “lacks a moral compass in international affairs.” Hagel is reportedly wary of using force against Iran, which suggests a more serious understanding of the moral and practical implications of war than advocates of “moral clarity” possess. The sort of engagement Hagel appears to be endorsing is one that defuses tensions and reduces the chances of conflict.