Stephen M. Walt

What the Hagel fight does and doesn’t mean

What the Hagel fight does and doesn’t mean

The war of words about the nomination of Chuck Hagel will undoubtedly continue for some time, even though his confirmation by the Senate looks overwhelmingly likely at this point. I’m standing by my earlier comments on the case, but here are a couple of additional thoughts on what it does and doesn’t mean.

First, as I noted a week or so ago, I don’t think Hagel’s appointment implies any shift in policy direction. It’s been clear for quite some time what the general thrust of Obama’s national security policy is going to be: trimming defense, pivoting to Asia, rejecting preventive war with Iran, and striving to rebuild at home. To the extent that he used the sword overseas, it was through limited, surgical means like special forces and drones and not big U.S. deployments. (The Afghan surge is the exception, of course, but I think Obama learned his lesson on that one). 

That’s the general approach he wanted Gates and Panetta to pursue, and that’s the same strategy that he’s chosen Hagel to continue. Given Hagel’s basic world-view, experience, and savvy, he’s an excellent choice. There won’t be war with Iran, there will be defense cuts, and there will be an earnest effort to get allies in key areas to do more for the collective defense. There won’t be a big push for Israel-Palestinian peace (too many obstacles, too many other things to do). Bottom line: the appointment of Hagel (and Kerry and Brennan) signals no big change in policy direction.

Second, the real question with the fight over Hagel is whether it is the beginning of a thaw in foreign policy discourse inside the American establishment. Until the Hagel case, ambitious foreign policy wannabes understood that one either had to be completely silent about the "special relationship" with Israel or one had to be an open and vocal supporter. The merest hint that you had independent thoughts on this matter would make you slightly suspect at best or provoke overt accusations that you were an anti-semite, effectively derailing any political ambitions you might have had. The result was an absurdly truncated debate in Washington, where one couldn’t even talk about the role of the Israel lobby without getting smeared. Indeed, one couldn’t even ask if unconditional U.S. support for Israel was in Israel’s best interest, let alone America’s, despite the growing evidence that its settlement policy was threatening its long-term future.

By making such ludicrous charges about Hagel, however, neoconservatives and other extremists made it clear just how nasty, factually ignorant, and narrow-minded they are, and how much they believed that the commitment to Israel ought to trump other foreign policy priorities. And it wasn’t just the absurd claim that Hagel was anti-semitic; it was the bizarre suggestion that a key job requirement for the U.S. Secretary of Defense was a deep and passionate attachment to a foreign country. The attacks on Hagel triggered a long-overdue reaction from a remarkably wide circle — including many staunch defenders of Israel — who were clearly disgusted by the smear tactics and aren’t willing to quail before them anymore.

Furthemore, as Peter Beinart noted yesterday, Hagel’s appointment might also dilute the perceived need for policy wonks to seem hawkish and bellicose even when skepticism about the use of force is called for. While no dove, Hagel has been intelligently critical of sending young men and women into harm’s way without a clear strategy and compelling national interest. His appointment might open up foreign policy debate to a much wider range of views, instead of the narrow-minded bellicosity that has prevailed since 9/11 (if not before).

It’s too soon to tell how far-reaching this shift might be. No doubt Hagel’s opponents will try to make him express his undying fidelity to Israel during his hearings, in an effort to restore the previous political orthodoxy. But it’s a losing cause, especially when Israel itself is about to elect the most right-wing government in its history and when Americans of many political stripes are beginning to understand that the "special relationship" may in fact have become a form of assisted suicide. For the record, I hope that’s not the case. Avoiding it will require the United States to be able to speak more honestly on this entire subject, and I hope the Hagel affair opens the door to a far more open, fact-based, and smear-free debate on the entire subject of U.S. foreign and defense policy, including our perenially hamstrung approach to the greater Middle East.

Unrelated note:  I will be traveling in Asia for the next eight days, and blogging will be hit-or-miss while I’m away. Next stop: Singapore.