The floundering nomination of Chuck Hagel has elicited two bizarre responses, one in the middle of the American political spectrum, the other at its fringes, and we ought to address both.
Let’s start with the middle. Among political moderates who hold more or less mainstream foreign-policy views — including the mass of pro-Israel liberals — Hagel’s nomination and subsequent embarrassment of a confirmation hearing have been greeted with head-scratching and disbelief. This is most clearly represented by New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait. In a series of posts since the announcement, Chait has again and again signaled his bafflement with the pick. “Nominating Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense may be the oddest thing President Obama has ever done,” Chait wrote in January. “And the most at odds with his general political character.” In a subsequent post, he used a sabermetric reference to wonder exactly what “value-over-replacement” Hagel offered over other potential nominees that could offset his controversial positions or second-rate intellect. In yet a third post, he asked, “Why did Obama pick a candidate who was bound to create medium-size political headaches, yet brought him, relative to other possible nominees, no upside at all?”
Seemingly exasperated, Chait carries on: “Hagel has said lots of things that Obama does not endorse, most of which Hagel himself no longer endorses, and some of which Hagel says he never believed at all.”
“Why, though, should Obama have to defend positions he doesn’t agree with?” he asks.“Why waste political capital picking a fight that isn’t essential to any policy goals?”
To paraphrase Chait’s argument: Why should grandmother have grown such big ears while lying in bed? Why should she have grown such big eyes? Or such large hands? Or such a terrible big mouth? And how is pulling her cap down far over her face essential to any of grandmother’s policy goals?
Little Red Writing Chait is of course reasoning from the assumption that President Obama is moderate and wise, that he holds an undying ardor for Israel, and is manifestly determined to prevent a nuclear Iran, come hell or highly enriched uranium. It is not surprising that Chait should find it so trying to incorporate the president’s nomination of Hagel into a web of beliefs founded on such givens.
But as far as old Bill Occam and I are concerned, the most plausible explanation for why President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel is that . . . he wanted to. He thinks Chuck Hagel will be effective in administering the national-security policy of candidate Obama circa 2007 or 2008, and even of President Obama circa 2009. And that’s the policy President Obama is interested in pursuing in his second term. In other words, the reason President Obama’s defense nominee sucks is that President Obama’s defense policy sucks.
While the earnestly consternated in the political middle don’t seem to get this, the Hagel cheerleaders on both of their political flanks do, and they’re super psyched about it. Where I see in Hagel a man whose ceiling as SecDef is ineffectual bumbler disliked by Pentagon lifers (and he has no floor), these nouveau-America-Firsters, left and right, see a man who will preside bravely over a gradual withdrawal of the United States from whole theaters of geopolitics — and they positively beam at the prospect. But they are missing something else. In their war fatigue, they have refused to reckon with Hagel’s record as a poor organizational leader and domineering, ineffective manager of people; with his amorphous views and tenuous grasp of policy detail; and with his unremarkable intellect.
They ignore all this because they naively and narrowly view Hagel as above all else an “anti-war” figure. There are plenty of reasons for mainstream foreign-policy conservatives to challenge this picture, especially when it’s presented by our friends on the right who style themselves foreign-policy “realists” or “paleocons.” But let’s just focus on one. To set Hagel in a simple opposition to potentially “pro-war” nominees, “interventionists,” or, worst of all, “neocons” gives both the former and the latter too much credit. Leon Panetta wasn’t a “neocon.” Bob Gates wasn’t a “neocon.” And I’m not even sure Don Rumsfeld was one, either — though that’s a doctoral dissertation I’ll never write. But you don’t have to be a neocon to know that the Venn diagram of U.S. and Israeli national interests overlaps, a lot. And you don’t have be a war-of-choice enthusiast to realize that it isn’t ideal when the man charged with planning for the unthinkable calls war with Iran unthinkable. And you don’t have to be a mandarin of the military-industrial complex to know that, “bloated” defense budgets aside, the point of maintaining the greatest destructive instrument in the history of man is to lessen the chance that we’ll ever have to use it.
The alternative to Hagel isn’t “more war” or the well-groomed love child of Dick Cheney and the Jewish Lobby. It’s basic strategic competence. It’s a man equal to the dangerous world he’ll be asked to stand sentry over.
Maybe the best way to illustrate what the far left, far right, and dead center are missing about Hagel is with the following dilemma: Hagel’s foreign-policy views are clearly to the left of the president’s rhetoric for the last couple of years. That’s not even debatable. In practice, that will mean one of two things. Either the views expressed in Obama’s rhetoric of the last couple of years will continue to be the policy of the United States, in which case Hagel will be frustrated and constrained as defense secretary, and relegated to the role of mere bureaucrat-in-chief of the Pentagon. That, needless to say, does not appear to be his strong suit. The other possibility is that a second-term Obama will pursue a foreign policy closer to the one Hagel has avowed in speeches and writings over the last several years: a considerably smaller military, a net reduction in global power projection, especially in the most dangerous parts of the world, generous détente with Iran, skeptical neutrality or even hostility toward Israel, and so on. In that case, Hagel will be free to foolishly pursue his boss’s foolish vision.
Hagel can thus incompetently execute a decent strategy or competently execute an indecent one. So flip a coin. Heads they win, tails we lose.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.