Reality Check

What’s Really Behind the Hagel Fight

Let's face it: This battle is about Obama, not his would-be secretary of defense.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The more I watch the soap opera that surrounds Chuck Hagel’s nomination for defense secretary — and there are more episodes to come — the more I wonder if he’s really the main event.

Sure, the former senator is an outspoken maverick who has angered fellow Republicans, said some things that upset the pro-Israel community, taken positions on Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran that were out of sync with U.S. policy, and driven the neocons crazy in general.

But my sense is that the real subtext in this melodrama is about more than the questions Hagel’s detractors have raised: Is he qualified for the job? Is he endemically hostile to Israel? Is he going to emasculate the U.S. military, in which he proudly served, and willfully weaken the defenses of a country he deeply loves?

These are questions to which the answers are already clear: yes, no, and no. The hearings before the Armed Services Committee will give Hagel an important opportunity to defend himself and explain his beliefs about U.S. national security. And unless he makes some self-inflicted gaffe, he’s likely to make it through the confirmation process.

That’s why I think that the Hagel affair really isn’t about Chuck Hagel.

This is really a fight about Barack Obama. It is being driven by three somewhat overlapping constituencies — a pro-Israel community that doesn’t trust the president, a Republican party and a neoconservative elite struggling unsuccessfully to define its own foreign policy identity, and finally, a party in opposition that is determined to remind Obama that, reelected or not, he doesn’t have a free hand.

Obama, Israel, and American Jews

Hagel’s support for a special relationship with Israel — but not an exclusive one, where Israeli policies are above scrutiny and criticism — is really how Obama feels too. Hagel articulates on Israel what Obama cannot — a frustration with some of Israel’s policies and a belief that the United States needs to exhibit more balance and show greater sensitivity to Palestinian and Arab concerns.

Like Obama, Hagel isn’t an enemy of a Jewish state, let alone, as some of his detractors have charged, a hater of Jews. But he’s clearly not emotional or emotive when it comes to Israel either.

Obama is the first U.S. president who doesn’t think the Israelis are cowboys and the Palestinians are Indians. He was only six at the time of Israel’s stunning victory during the six day war and likely internalized little of the David vs. Goliath tropes relating to Israel and the Arabs. (If anything, he emerged with the opposite image of Israel as the mighty power occupying the West Bank and Gaza and the Palestinians as David.) And unlike Hagel, Obama didn’t grow up in a political environment where being "strong on Israel" mattered much for most of his political career.

All of this is reflected and exacerbated by the ongoing melodrama of his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Rightly or wrongly, the mutual impressions have been fixed: Netanyahu believes the president is insensitive — even bloodless — about Israel’s fears and concerns, and the president thinks the prime minister is a con man who operates with a wanton disregard for American interests.

Four years in with another four to go, it’s clear to all but the interminably obtuse that these two just don’t get along. And there’s growing unease in the Jewish community and in Israel that tensions may rise further, as Obama looks toward his legacy and Netanyahu is pulled rightward by even more hardline members of a new coalition.

So much of the opposition to Hagel flows from this dynamic. If the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu weren’t so dysfunctional, I bet the concern about this would-be defense secretary wouldn’t be nearly as acute.

Republicans in Search of a Foreign Policy

I’m betting too that a good part of the opposition to Hagel comes from Republicans who are frustrated that they can’t identify a new foreign policy approach for their party, and who are very unhappy about the one the president is following. This malaise is orchestrated by neoconservatives who wax nostalgic for the good old days of Ronald Reagan’s principled but practical approach to foreign policy. (They can’t be pining away for the Bush 43 years, can they?)

That the Republican Party is at sea on foreign policy grates the party leadership for two reasons. First, Obama’s approach has essentially stolen pages from the Republicans’ playbook: He’s morphed into a less ideological, more disciplined version of George W. Bush — keeping Gitmo open, escalating the drone war, surging troops into Afghanistan, toughening sanctions on Iran.

And second, Obama has borrowed from the Republican realism of the George H.W. Bush administration: He has avoided risky and open ended military campaigns, valued multilateral diplomacy, and always made sure that he had the means to carry out his ends.

What Obama has abandoned is the Republican crusader sprit of aggressively championing American values — muscular interventions, turning American policy into a morality play of good against evil, and touting the American exceptionalism of the Iraq years. And worse, the American public seems to have embraced Obama’s policies as the right course for the times.

Hagel is the poster child for this realism. As a Republican renegade who supported the Iraq war and then turned against it, he is a man the crusaders love to hate. He is a decorated combat veteran with a mind of his own, with an interest perhaps in trimming the Pentagon’s budget — a man who will urge caution and deliberation before projecting military force abroad and who believes in trying diplomacy first (with Iran, for instance) before going to war.

And for key Republicans like Sen. John McCain, that’s frustrating in the extreme. Not only can’t the Republicans identify a foreign policy issue that separates them in a practical way from the Democrats, the world seems inhospitable for grand rescue operations. (see: Syria, Iran, the Arab winter, and Afghanistan.)

Opposing Hagel is a political and philosophical imperative for the Republican Party, which has lost its footing in foreign policy and can’t find an effective way to attack the president’s. But whether Republicans can use the Hagel confirmation hearings to showcase their new approach, or whether they will simply fall back on their old habits, remains to be seen.

We’re Still Here

Finally, opposing Hagel is mandatory station identification.

Obama is only one of 17 U.S. presidents to be elected to a second term (and only 14 served out the entire eight years). And yet, you’d hardly know it. Whatever mandate or electoral bounce normally accrues to second-term presidents, this one seems more alone and powerless than ever.

Obama’s clear choice for secretary of state, Susan Rice, took herself out of the running because of Republican and Democratic pressure over Benghazi. The grand deal for avoiding the fiscal cliff collapsed. The president’s candidate for defense secretary is facing a tough nomination fight — and whether it’s gun control, the debt ceiling, or immigration reform, Obama will face other tough fights from Republicans who want to remind him that he can’t have his way without their cooperation and support.

The threat to Hagel may have diminished somewhat, with influential New York Sen. Chuck Schumer announcing his support. But what if he doesn’t make it through?

I really admire Hagel’s service, his guts, and his view that when it comes to using American military power the fact that we can doesn’t always mean we should. I think he’s just what the doctor ordered these days.

Still, I won’t believe the sky is falling if Hagel isn’t confirmed or that it would mean a catastrophic defeat for Obama and for U.S. foreign policy or a validation that the neoconservatives and pro-Israeli community are now 10 feet tall. The fact is, as we saw with Susan Rice, the White House will find a suitable fallback. Indeed, as Charles de Gaulle implied in his comment that the cemeteries of France are filled with indispensable people, nobody really is. Nobody, that is, except perhaps Barack Obama, the most controlling foreign-policy president since Richard Nixon. It’s likely that Obama will make all the key decisions on foreign policy during the next four years — with or without Chuck Hagel at his side.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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