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A Chuck Hagel Postmortem

U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Laura Buchta / Released

As a follow-up to my discussion with Stephen Walt, I wanted to say a few more words about Chuck Hagel’s tenure as Secretary of Defense.

When Hagel was originally hired, I questioned the consensus that his nomination signaled a shift to a more restrained foreign policy:

It’s pleasant to think that the President actually wants Hagel’s advice, but that strikes me as somewhat unlikely. First of all, the President, by all reports, takes most of his advice from a very close circle. Though Obama got a favorable impression of him in his brief time in the Senate, Hagel isn’t in that circle. Second, what’s Hagel going to offer advice about? Handling the DoD? Hagel has expressed an interest in trimming the fat at Defense – but that’s very different from seeming like the sort of person who would be effective at out-maneuvering vested interests who will oppose that trimming. Handling Iran? Hagel’s shown a real interest in an approach that emphasizes the desire for normal relations over one that assumes a confrontational posture is the only realistic option, but that’s not the same thing as saying that he has any particular regional expertise. Handling Congress? Was Hagel a notably effective Senator?

Another possibility is, as noted, that the President wanted to make a point – to signal that he was interested in a less-confrontational foreign policy, and in modestly reducing military spending. But if he wanted to send a signal, why send it tentatively?

Meanwhile, the opposite interpretation is also possible: that the President wanted someone like Hagel to endorse whatever his policies already are. . . . And a third possibility is that President Obama didn’t think that carefully about the symbolism of the choice, but thought of Hagel simply as “a Republican I can work with” that would earn bi-partisan points for bringing him in. That would have been foolish of him, but you know, discounting the possibility of incompetence is rarely wise in evaluating what goes on in Washington.

I concluded as follows:

[T]he real question is whether Hagel would be effective at managing the Pentagon. I don’t have any particular insight on that question, but it’s not obvious to me that Hagel fits that particular bill. The last Secretary of Defense I can recall who muscled material reductions in military spending was a fellow named Dick Cheney. And look what he turned into after 9-11. So you really never can tell.

Now, in the wake of Hagel’s departure, we’re getting news stories like this one, claiming that Hagel was largely kept out of the loop of decision making (which we already knew), but also that Hagel was hardly the advocate of foreign policy restraint that his boosters might have assumed, specifically advocating a firmer line on Russia than the Administration was willing to take. That doesn’t surprise me too much, as Hagel was also responsible for over-hyping the threat posed by the Islamic State before the White House had settled on a response.

To be fair, the heart of Hagel’s criticism, as articulating in that WSJ story, is that the U.S. has not been sufficiently clear in its policies, that we’ve lurched from strong statements to weak actions – which is, I would agree, a very fair criticism – and that we don’t have an overall strategy. Hagel correctly understood that the Administration approach of asserting American centrality in every conflict while being very cautious about actually committing resources was causing foreign observers to question America’s true level of commitment. But he wasn’t willing to advocate either a more outright hawkish approach to these conflicts, or an outright more restrained policy that took American intervention off the table. He didn’t want to oust Assad but he wanted to be “clearer” about our goals in Syria. He wanted to de-escalate tensions with Russia but he wanted to do more to rein in Putin and reassure our European allies. He thought we needed to consider “creative” options but “he didn’t advocate a position different than the ones Mr. Obama was pursuing.”

Hagel was frustrated by the indecision and lack of strategic thinking at the highest level. But he was similarly indecisive and had no particularly noteworthy strategic insights to add. He became a vehicle for expressing the dissatisfactions of the Pentagon with the President rather than someone who could successfully bridge the growing gap between the President and the Pentagon. None of which surprises me at all – it’s entirely in keeping with the impression I formed of Hagel when he was a Senator.

The challenge for advocates of a more restrained foreign policy remains the same as it has been for a generation now since the end of the Cold War. We either have to accommodate the rise of other powers by bringing our own policies more into line with their interests, which might facilitate working in concert to maintain order internationally – or we have to accommodate the rise of other powers by actively withdrawing from areas in which they have greater interests than we do, effectively giving up on the idea of concerted maintenance of international order in favor of something more closely resembling a spheres-of-influence approach.

But neither alternative is particularly popular. We – both the foreign policy establishment and, if we are honest, the American people – seem prefer lurching between trying to maintain hegemony on the cheap, and trying to maintain it more expensively. Both Hagel and Obama have done their share of lurching. We should assume that the next two years will feature more of the same, regardless of who Hagel’s successor is.

about the author

Noah Millman, senior editor, is an opinion journalist, critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker who joined The American Conservative in 2012. Prior to joining TAC, he was a regular blogger at The American Scene. Millman’s work has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Week, Politico, First Things, Commentary, and on The Economist’s online blogs. He lives in Brooklyn.

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