Hagel Unchained

Why do neocon Republicans hate Chuck Hagel so much? Because of what he would do as secretary of defense.

Eric Francis/Getty Images
Eric Francis/Getty Images

Many Republicans breathed a sigh of relief when Chuck Hagel, who had become the bête noire of the right for his criticisms of George W. Bush’s administration, decided not to run again for his Nebraska Senate seat in 2008. But now an even worse prospect confronts Republicans, foremost among them Sen. John McCain, who has regularly tormented Barack Obama’s administration. They may soon confront a Hagel unchained.

If reports are to be believed, President Obama may have discovered his foreign-policy kryptonite — naming Hagel, who has been teaching at Georgetown University and whom Obama has called "a great friend of mine," to run the Defense Department. With Hagel at the helm, Obama could proceed even more quickly with cutting the defense budget and retrenching abroad, while largely neutering his Republican adversaries.

Like McCain, Hagel is a decorated Vietnam War veteran and a longtime Republican. But there the similarities end. Whatever personal friendship the two men may enjoy (though it’s worth remembering that Hagel did not endorse McCain for the presidency in 2008), Hagel, who has drawn very different lessons from Vietnam than McCain, is his foreign-policy antipode. While McCain began his political career in the more cautious realist camp, he has steadily moved into the neocon tent, beginning with the Balkan wars of the 1990s. McCain, who gave the impression that he would want to intervene to stop Russia’s invasion of Georgia during the 2008 presidential campaign, never seems to have seen a war he doesn’t want to fight on behalf of democracy and human rights, whether it’s in Iraq or Syria. He gives the distinct impression that he’s on permanent active service in search of monsters to destroy abroad.

Not so Hagel. He voted for the Iraq war but quickly turned on the Bush administration, ultimately deeming it, in a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations, "incompetent." He made no secret of his contempt for Vice President Dick Cheney and Cheney’s loopy pronouncements about how swimmingly the war was going. In 2005, he voted against confirming the egregious John Bolton to become Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations.

Hagel’s independent streak derives from the fact that his deepest loyalty is to the soldiers who actually fight the battles that Washington politicians direct them to wage. And like Henry Stimson, a Republican who served in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration as secretary of war, Hagel believes in bipartisanship and compromise. Those traits have not exactly endeared him to his former brethren in the conservative movement who thirst for martial glory, at least from the sidelines.

So for much of the past decade, Hagel — despite a lifetime rating of 84 percent from the American Conservative Union — has been a prickly presence on the right, a traditional realist as opposed to the crusading neocons who have, by and large, co-opted much of the GOP’s foreign-policy brain trust. Hagel, you could say, has been trying to wage a lonely insurgency inside his own party to bring it back to reality. It has earned him brickbats such as the "anti-Republican Republican" from the Weekly Standard’s Stephen F. Hayes, the author of a hagiography of Cheney. Meanwhile, the conservative National Review has been steadily denouncing him as well. It has depicted Hagel as a Trojan horse. Most recently, it warned about his "increasing coziness with the Obama administration, which can be traced to the 2008 campaign" and suggested that he is a wimp when it comes to dealing with Iran.

There can be no doubting that Hagel has moved toward Obama. But given that Obama has adhered more closely to the realist precepts of Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft than Republicans themselves, it can hardly be described as a sinister, traitorous, or even startling development. On the contrary, it seems like a natural evolution. Since 2009, he has served as co-chairman of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board. And Hagel’s moderate tone jibes well with Obama’s. Hagel, for example, voted in 2007 against labeling Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization — he wants to keep the lines open to Iran for diplomatic negotiations. He believes in the perils of global warming. And he believes in a Middle East peace process — in 2006, he said in an op-ed, "until we are able to lead a renewal of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, mindless destruction and slaughter will continue in Lebanon, Israel and across the Middle East" — which is why he’s attracting the ire of pro-Israel groups such as AIPAC for his refusal to dismiss Palestinian aspirations for their own state. As the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake reports, "In 2009, Hagel signed onto a letter from the U.S. Middle East Project that urged Obama to begin talks with Hamas, a U.S. designated terrorist group, in an effort to revive the peace process."

But having torpedoed Susan Rice’s nomination, it seems improbable that conservatives will be able to sink Hagel, particularly since he was one of their own — a Republican senator. And pro-Israel organizations would be demonstrating the limits of their own power if they attempt to pillory Hagel. If anything, his plucky views are a sign of how politically correct discussions about foreign affairs have become in the GOP, where the slightest deviation from orthodox thinking is treated as a grave heresy. He belongs to the dwindling realist camp of Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and Brent Scowcroft. It’s also another sign of how far the GOP has drifted from the tenets that once ensured it dominance in debates with Democrats. In abandoning foreign affairs realism, the party has also abandoned political realities and ceded the field to Obama.

Unlike Leon Panetta, who has been loath to cut the Pentagon’s budget, Hagel would probably tackle the project with fervor. He would also be a likely opponent of direct American intervention in Syria and push for as small a remaining military force in Afghanistan as possible. His entire thrust is to emphasize diplomacy over brute power. Hagel’s doctrine is crystal clear: No matter how well-intentioned America may be, it cannot single-handedly impose democracy abroad.

If Obama does choose Hagel in the end, it will partly testify to how much the Democrats have altered beyond recognition in the past few years in commanding the center on foreign affairs. And Obama will likely enjoy his own revenge against the GOP for noisily challenging his bona fides over the past four years. The irony can hardly be lost on the president: Who better to help implement a traditional Republican foreign policy in a Democratic administration than Hagel?

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