Chuck Hagel is not someone I’d pick to be in a position of power. He’s a conservative Republican, a military guy who volunteered to fight in Vietnam. According to Forbes, during Hagel’s tenure representing Nebraska in the Senate, “he favored school prayer, missile defense and drilling in Alaska, while opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and limits on assault guns. He voted in favor of every defense authorization bill that came up during the dozen years he served, while opposing extension of Medicare benefits to prescription drugs. Such stances earned him a lifetime rating of 84% percent from the American Conservative Union….”
Granted, we’re talking about defense secretary, not someone responsible for domestic policy, so the most important consideration for me is not the nominee’s stance on social issues, but his or her willingness to prevent wars. If we assume this person has to have been a member of Congress, I’d start with Barbara Lee or Dennis Kucinich, not Chuck Hagel.
But that isn’t the choice we face. The alternatives to Hagel won’t be the heroic Oakland congresswoman or the committed advocate of a Department of Peace; they’ll be military bureaucrats who have never said a word outside their respective bosses’ talking-point boxes. At the end of the day, this isn’t about Hagel versus any other candidate; this is about what President Obama is signaling by nominating him as secretary of defense—and about the political forces arrayed against him.
Hagel’s nomination engendered bitter, angry opposition from the moment it was floated as a trial balloon in December. That Obama went ahead with it despite repeated threats that Hagel would never be confirmed by the Senate is a good sign that—at least on some critical foreign policy issues—the president is not prepared to allow either the Israel lobby or the hard-core neoconservatives to decide his choice.
The opposition came from both of these distinct but overlapping Washington cohorts. Pro-Israel forces are outraged that President Obama would appoint someone who once had the temerity to warn that the lobby “intimidates a lot of people” in Washington. Of course Hagel should have probably used the term “Israel lobby” rather than his sloppy “Jewish lobby” label, which ignored the huge influence of right-wing Christian Zionism—and Hagel himself apologized for the careless phrasing. But whatever the language, it’s a significant exposé of the perceived power of this lobby—so much so that AIPAC, its most authoritative component, refrained from criticizing Hagel as soon as the nomination became official, leaving the most extremist elements, such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, to continue the public attacks.
We should be clear: Hagel is no supporter of a just solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict based on human rights, international law and equality for all. He told Haaretz that a solution “should not include any compromise regarding Israel’s Jewish identity.” That’s code for accepting Israel’s two-tiered legal system, which privileges Jewish over non-Jewish citizens and denies Palestinians crucial rights available only to Jews. But again, we aren’t looking at a choice between a supporter of international law and an uncritical supporter of Israel—so the possibility of a defense secretary who acknowledges the danger of putting Israeli interests above those of the United States and is willing to challenge the Israel lobby is a pretty interesting development. (If Obama also saw the nomination as a chance to pay back Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his all but official endorsement of Mitt Romney last year, that’s likely just a bonus.)
At the same time, neocon anger with Chuck Hagel is nothing new. Some of it parallels the frustration of the Israel lobby with his refusal to toe AIPAC’s line, particularly by refusing to call for war with Iran. Hagel cautioned that “military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities would signal a severe diplomatic failure and would have their own serious negative consequences for the United States and for our allies,” and has instead called for direct bilateral negotiations. In 2010, he warned of the potential costs involved in attacking Iran: “Once you start, you’d better be prepared to find 100,000 troops, because it may take that.” Harvard Law professor and occupation apologist Alan Dershowitz announced that he would testify against Hagel based on his position on Iran, calling his nomination “a bad choice for the country.”
If Hagel is confirmed as defense secretary, it hardly guarantees there will be no war with Iran. But his nomination by Obama, and the latter’s willingness to defend him against the soft-on-Iran charges, have signaled that the White House isn’t looking to move toward a military attack anytime soon.
The neocons also have it in for Hagel because he was one of the first Republicans to criticize their favorite project: the war in Iraq. “I share the hope of a better world without Saddam Hussein,” he said in 2002, “but we do not really know if our intervention in Iraq will lead to democracy in either Iraq or elsewhere in the Arab world.” Of course, he voted to authorize the invasion and to fund the war every chance he got—he’s no peace activist—but Hagel later broke with his own party, calling George W. Bush’s foreign policy “reckless” and the 2007 Iraq “surge” a “ping-pong game with American lives.” (He didn’t, however, express any concern for Iraqi lives.)
* * *
Would Hagel challenge Obama—who is not from his own party—if faced with a potentially disastrous new war in, say, Syria? An escalation of the drone war in Yemen? Or some similar crisis? Probably not. But there’s still that slight bit of hope that the result would somehow be different from that of a Pentagon insider bureaucrat in the position.
And then there’s the Pentagon’s budget. Hagel has called it “bloated”—pretty amazing for a future secretary of defense. Obama may have felt that a decorated Republican military veteran would be in the best position to convince the GOP-controlled House that some cuts have to be made. There’s no way Hagel will argue the realities and consequences of the entire military budget: for example, the impact on jobs and healthcare of the $111 billion we spent last year on a failed war in Afghanistan; the $1 million per year it costs to keep just one young soldier there; or the fact that we could bring that soldier home and have enough money to hire him or her and nineteen others at good $50,000-a-year middle-class union jobs.
But a Pentagon chief who actually believes that his agency’s budget should be cut would be something new. And ultimately, that’s probably the most important reason the attack dogs are slavering for Hagel’s hide. The Washington Post editorialized that Hagel’s willingness to cut military spending was one of the key reasons to oppose his nomination—a view that validates and reinforces the perspective of military producers and contractors whose CEOs’ fortunes stand (and rarely fall) with the Pentagon’s budget.
Unfortunately, military cuts of the size we need to rebuild the economy and make our country and the world truly safer—ending the Afghanistan war quickly and entirely, stopping the drone war, moving toward complete nuclear disarmament, closing the 1,000 or so overseas military bases—will not be on the agenda of Chuck Hagel or anyone else at the Pentagon. But better someone in charge who agrees that Pentagon spending is not sacrosanct than someone who believes it is his job to keep every last billion in the military’s hands.
The Post editorial went on to condemn Hagel’s politics overall. Most cross-party appointments, it said, “offer a veneer of bipartisanship to the national security team.” But Hagel would be different, since he would not “move it toward the center, which is the usual role of such opposite-party nominees. On the contrary: Mr. Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term—and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him.”
Chuck Hagel is no leftist. And standing to the left of President Obama’s center-right military policy is not a very high bar. But standing up to AIPAC, the defense industry (including the members of Congress who serve it) and the still-powerful neocons makes the Hagel nomination a good move on Obama’s part. And it gives the rest of us a basis for pushing much further to end the wars, close the bases, cut the Pentagon’s funding, challenge military aid to Israel and tax the military profiteers.
Eric Alterman, too, says “Hooray for Hagel” (Jan. 28).