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Chuck Hagel & GOP Foreign Policy

Scott McConnell relates Hagel’s likely nomination to the Republicans’ weakness on foreign policy:

This obviously is not where the base of the GOP is right now, which does much to explain why Hagel is being touted for a cabinet post in a Democratic administration, and why, after long consideration, he did not seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. But it seems equally obvious, or should be, that keeping the Eisenhower internationalist brand of the GOP alive and visible is something Republicans should actually want to do– if for no other reason than to give the impression that GOP foreign policy thinking has more complexity to it than one might glean from the nauseating campaign spectacle of enthusiasts for the Iraq war bidding for Sheldon Adelson’s backing.

I agree with Scott that Senate Republicans would be doing themselves a great favor by not opposing Hagel’s confirmation. There will probably be many Republicans voting against his confirmation on the floor to prove their anti-Obama and anti-realist credentials, but I doubt that there are very many eager to have a major fight over this. Nothing would confirm the GOP’s image as a hard-line, intransigent, and rejectionist party better than a campaign aimed at defeating the nomination of a member of their own party for a Cabinet post that has been identified with Republicans for the last 15 years.

One of the partisan Democratic complaints about Hagel’s likely nomination is that it once again entrusts the position to a Republican, which creates the impression that Democrats are not suited for the job, but I think this misses the point. It is more significant that moderate internationalists such as Hagel cannot and typically do not serve in a modern Republican administration. Modern Republican presidents or presidential nominees nowadays would never appoint someone like Hagel, which is an indictment of the GOP’s weakness rather than a reflection of the Democrats’ “thin bench.” Obama retained Gates at Defense, which emphasized some continuity with the second term of the Bush administration, but Gates was originally brought on to repair at least some of the damage inflicted during the Rumsfeld years. Since late 2006, there has been a slow but real repudiation of some of the delusions of the first Bush term. Hagel’s appointment would represent a continuation of that process of repudiation.

It’s instructive that for most of the last 15 years the Republican in charge of the Department of Defense has generally not been closely aligned with the party’s hawks and hard-liners. Between Gates, Cohen, and now apparently Hagel, three of the last four Republican Secretaries of Defense have been identified as moderates and/or realists of a sort. The only one who wasn’t so identified presided over the greatest strategic blunder and most disastrously mismanaged war of the last generation.

It is in the GOP’s self-interest to regain the support of Eisenhower-like internationalists, whom its leaders and spokesmen have gone out of their way to alienate for the last ten years. This support is something that party leaders will need to start actively cultivating if they are going to win these people back. Otherwise, many Republican internationalists and realists will find a new political home among the Democrats, who have increasingly been co-opting and taking over the ground previously occupied by Eisenhower Republicans. Like Jim Webb’s switch to the Democrats to protest the Iraq war, Obama’s appointment of Hagel is another warning siren for the GOP that it is in danger of remaining at a disadvantage on foreign policy and national security for many years in the future. Instead of being a temporary reaction to the failures of the Bush administration, the public’s lack of confidence in the party on these issues threatens to become a defining trait for many cycles to come.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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