With the news that UN Ambassador Susan Rice, after taking disproportionate heat from the GOP over her comments on the September 11th Benghazi attack, has withdrawn her name from consideration for Obama’s nomination for Secretary of State, rumors of nominating former Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense is owning the day.
What makes this important for Antiwar.com readers is that the news media and the DC-centric twitterverse are…well, all atwitter about Chuck Hagel’s supposed reputation for foreign policy restraint and for being decidedly outside the Congressional club of Israel-firsters.
Here is a partial round-up of what’s being said…
Foreign Policy reviews Hagel’s 2008 book, which they say “presents Hageal as an Eisenhower conservative – low budgets and no wars,” and some of Hagel’s more notable positions on foreign policy:
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.
Daniel Larison at The American Conservative isn’t as convinced:
The advantages are that Hagel has been less enthusiastic about using force overseas than many other Republicans that he served with in Congress, and as a veteran he has never been one to minimize or ignore the costs of armed conflict. The disadvantages are that he did not oppose new foreign wars while he was in the Senate.
Towards the end of his last term in office, he seemed to have learned more from the Iraq debacle than most of his Republican colleagues, and I suspect he would now be a voice for restraint and skepticism when responding to conflicts like the one in Syria. On the other hand, Hagel was one of the leading Republicans in favor of the war in Kosovo, and went along with all of his Republican Senate colleagues (save Chafee) in voting for the authorization for the Iraq war. One of the reasons I have never been a Hagel fan is that his skepticism about military action never seems to prevail over his willingness to “do something.” He has been more aware than most politicians of the possible consequences of military action, but he has ended up supporting new wars each time the question has come up. Hagel is probably one of the best available choices that Obama could make, but it doesn’t guarantee anything and its significance shouldn’t be overstated.
And with regard to Hagel’s position on Israel, the rabidly pro-Israel crowd in Washington isn’t happy, while others claim this is being overstated.
“Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite,” a senior Republican Senate aide told the Weekly Standard. The aide continued, “Hagel has made clear he believes in the existence of a nefarious Jewish lobby that secretly controls U.S. foreign policy. This is the worst kind of anti-Semitism there is.”
[Some have cited] Hagel’s refusal to “write the EU asking them to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization” in 2006; that “In October 2000, Hagel was one of only 4 Senators who refused to sign a Senate letter in support of Israel” and that in 2005 he “refused to sign a letter to President Bush to pressure the Palestinian Authority to ban terrorist groups from participating in Palestinian legislative elections.”
Hagel’s real opposition will likely come from the pro-Israel lobby in Washington. While the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) never takes formal positions on nominees, if the group is asked by senators for its view on Hagel, it’s unlikely AIPAC will have a kind word.
A senior pro-Israel advocate in Washington told The Daily Beast on Thursday, “The pro-Israel community will view the nomination of Senator Chuck Hagel in an extremely negative light. His record is unique in its animus towards Israel.”
…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.
…Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a personal friend of Hagel’s, said that, while he doesn’t know if his friend will get the nomination, he predicts that if he does, Hagel would meet with pro-Israel senators and attempt to “mitigate the negative pressure.”
Marsha B. Cohen at Lobelog thinks Hagel’s reputed anti-Israel positions are being blown out of proportion. It is worth a read in full.
Update: Stephen Walt chimes in approvingly.