Chuck Hagel Wants to Be Dwight Eisenhower

We read the senator's 2008 book on defense so that you don't have to.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Win McNamee/Getty Images

What would SecDef Chuck Hagel do? With all the speculation, FP decided to go back to his 2008 manifesto, America: Our Next Chapter.

America presents Hagel as an Eisenhower conservative — low budgets and no wars. A prominent critic of the war in Iraq, he characterizes the invasion as "the triumph of the so-called neoconservative ideology." With frequent reference to his experience as a drafted infantryman in Vietnam, Hagel gives the impression that he opposes any war of choice. That put him at odds with the Bush administration, but it may also put him at odds with the liberal interventionists in the Obama camp.

Nor is he a natural fit with the Obama administration’s signature Asia pivot policy. He is wary of any strategy that smacks of "economic, political, and military containment" of China: "this kind of belligerence would be a disaster for our two nations and for the world…. such a policy would fail." Of course, the Pentagon has been increasing its naval presence in the Pacific, which, however many times U.S. officials deny it, looks like military containment, at least in Beijing.

On Iran, Hagel seems even more dovish — though his thoughts may have changed in the four years since the book’s publication. He writes at length about his concerns over policies that back Iran into a corner. "Isolating nations is risky," he writes. "It turns them inward, and makes their citizens susceptible to the most demagogic fear mongering." The answer, he says, is engagement. "Distasteful as we may find that country’s rulers, the absence of any formal governmental relations with Iran ensures that we will continue to conduct this delicate international relationship through the press and speeches, as well as through surrogates and third parties, on issues of vital strategic importance to our national interests. Such a course can only result in diplomatic blind spots that will lead to misunderstandings, miscalculation, and, ultimately, conflict."

So Hagel supports direct negotiations with Iran. He laments the lack of diplomatic ties and toys with the idea of a consulate in Tehran. He also reflects fondly on meetings he had with Iranian ambassadors to the United Nations in New York.

Hagel even flirts with the idea that an Iranian bomb wouldn’t be the end of the world. "[T]he genie of nuclear armaments is already out of the bottle, no matter what Iran does. In this imperfect world, sovereign nation-states possessing nuclear weapons capability (as opposed to stateless terrorist groups) will often respond with some degree of responsible, or at least sane, behavior. These governments, however hostile they may be toward us, have some appreciation of the horrific results of a nuclear war and the consequences they would suffer." Hagel’s realpolitik might make Stephen Walt proud, but it may unnerve those on both sides of the aisle who believe that Iran must be stopped before it gets a nuclear weapon. Even President Obama has said that a nuclear Iran cannot be contained.

Many conservatives will recoil at the praise Hagel lavishes on the United Nations, and indeed, if secretary of defense falls through, he could well be on the next U.N. ambassador shortlist. Though he concedes it has "limitations and problems" and frequently "succumbs to the worst forms of political posturing," Hagel waxes poetic about its essential role in building coalitions on pressing issues from nuclear proliferation to global poverty, and praises its work in peacekeeping and post-conflict transitions. "[T]he United Nations," he writes, "is the only international organization that can help bring the consensus that is indispensable in finding solutions and resolving [international security] crises." Hagel’s love for the institution extends back to high school, when he participated in model United Nations; he represented the Soviet Union, to hone his debate skills. As for the critics, Hagel’s heard it all before, during the run-up to the Iraq war, when he and others were told there was "[n]o time for diplomacy or to build a coalition, that would be selling out our national interest to the weak-kneed United Nations!"

Oddly, Hagel almost completely avoids the subject of Afghanistan. What he does say is that it is grinding down the U.S. military, both physically and psychologically, wasting money at an alarming rate, and that he still believes an opportunity was missed when the United States refused to negotiate with the Taliban in 2003. People looking for answers about how Hagel feels about the war that could be his to wind down would best look elsewhere, but he does give the impression that he would be happy to be done with it.

The military should be happy to have him, though he concedes that the Pentagon needs to trim the fat. "Bloated budgets and lack of effective oversight and review are symptoms of deeper, structural inadequacy in our military posture," he writes, but his recommendations seem to amount to closing loopholes in contracting. In fact, he suggests growing the force to reduce U.S. reliance on security contractors. For all his talk of low budgets, his ire falls mostly on entitlement spending. "Our military has been pushed beyond the breaking point," he writes. He discusses his desire to share military burdens beyond the 1 percent of Americans who serve, better incentivize retention, and build a modern, adaptive force.

To this end, he cites President Eisenhower’s farewell address (yes, the "military-industrial complex" speech). Throughout the book, Eisenhower emerges as the lodestar for Hagel’s ideology. He’s characterized as "a paragon as a soldier and a general, and as a leader, he understood…that war, once it is unleashed, is always uncontrollable, unpredictable, and painful far beyond the predications of those who beat the drum the loudest." Hagel wouldn’t mind being thought of this way himself…someday.

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster

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