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Hagel and the Democratic Advantage on National Security

Reihan Salam’s analysis of the Hagel pick gets things half-right:

The president is pursuing a deliberate strategy of broadening the Democratic tent, and deepening its emerging advantage on national security issues. As a dovish former senator from a Great Plains state, and as a military veteran with culturally conservative convictions, Hagel represents a symbolic departure, which might appeal to socially moderate former Republicans who see the contemporary GOP as too extreme or, in some cases, too invested in the U.S. partnership with Israel.

Reihan is mostly right about the first part of this, but the second part doesn’t hold up as well. Obama is happy to bring exiled Republican internationalists into his camp. It reinforces both the perception and the reality that Republicans have lost their old advantage on foreign policy and national security, and it suggests that the Democrats’ advantage on these issues is not a temporary change that will fade as the Iraq war recedes into the past. Choosing Hagel helps Obama to shore up that advantage, and Hagel’s Republican critics are making it extremely easy for him to do so. It doesn’t hurt that Obama has liked Hagel for years and trusts his judgment. All in all, it’s a smart move politically as well as being the right choice for the job, so I confess that I don’t understand Chait’s puzzlement about the decision.

Following from what I was saying earlier, Obama hasn’t had to do much to broaden the Democratic tent on foreign policy. He has simply had to be less aggressive and somewhat more competent than his predecessor, whose foreign policy record was so woeful that the Democratic tent on foreign policy was bound to grow for many years afterward. That tent was already expanding before Obama was a presidential candidate. That’s why Jim Webb switched parties in 2006, and why the Republican advantage on foreign policy was already long gone by the time Obama was sworn in. Obama hasn’t had to do very much to win these Republicans over, and their own party has gone out of its way to continue driving them away, so it boosts the reputation of his administration and his party for foreign policy competence at the relatively low cost of confirming that national Republican elites are still trapped in the Bush era. Most people outside the party assume that to be the case, but it’s helpful to have the occasional reminder.

Reihan inadvertently provides another reminder of this when he makes a point of mentioning his support for keeping a “sizable” U.S. military presence in Iraq. This is a strange example to bring up when stating one’s objections to Obama’s record. Retaining a “sizable” presence in Iraq wasn’t politically feasible here or in Iraq, and it makes no sense as a matter of policy. What good purpose or national interest could be served by continuing to place Americans in a position where they would be the target of an insurgency? The only reason I can see for wanting such a “sizable” presence is to maintain the fiction that the U.S. “won” something in Iraq that it needs to be in a position to defend.

The second part of Reihan’s analysis endorses a caricatured view of Hagel. Is Hagel “dovish”? No, he’s not. I’m not trying to minimize anything here, but dovish is just an inaccurate description. Is he significantly less hawkish now than most current and former politicians in Washington? Absolutely. Choosing Hagel doesn’t strike me as a departure at all. If anything, it signals continuity with Obama’s first term, when the Pentagon was run by a different Republican who had been brought in to clean up Bush and Rusmfeld’s mess in Iraq. This continuity is evidently what many of Hagel’s critics seem to find so appalling about the choice. Obama doesn’t need to make a gesture to “socially moderate former Republicans who see the contemporary GOP as too extreme or, in some cases, too invested in the U.S. partnership with Israel.” He already wins a lot of those people by default, because the GOP makes a point of driving them into his camp whether they really want to be there or not.

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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