Is Hagel Too Much Like Obama? Or Too Little? Can’t It Be Both?

by Daniel Foster

That’s what TNR’s Alec MacGillis entitles his post on a pair of seemingly at-odds WaPo editorials against the Hagel nomination. And at first glance, he seems to have a point.

On December 18, the Washington Post editorial board penned an unusually forceful broadside declaring that Chuck Hagel was ”not the right choice” to be secretary of defense. The chief reason, the board wrote, was that Hagel’s views on foreign policy and national security were out of step not only with much of Washington, but with the man whom he would be working for: “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.” . . .

Today, the Post editorial board came at Hagel again. Except this one was slightly different. The editorial was titled “Obama’s cabinet has a worrisome similarity.” . . .

So. On December 18, Hagel was a bad choice because he is perilously out of line with President Obama. Today, he is a bad choice because he is “thoroughly in sync with [Obama's] left-of-center views” and won’t offer a challenging perspective. Huh. What changed? Did Obama and Hagel go through some sort of secret mind-meld over the holidays, perhaps at a secret hide-out in Hawaii?

Thing is, the two stances are in fact quite easily reconcilable if you spell out a couple of missing (or elided) premises. (1) Hagel stands to the left of President Obama’s rhetoric and frequently the adopted policies of his administration on a number of defense and foreign policy issues. This is not the same as saying they are to the left of Obama’s preferences. This is a point NRO’s editors gestured toward in our first editorial against Hagel (emphasis added):

There is certainly a case to be made that Hagel would have made a fine defense secretary for candidate Obama. Like the senator from Illinois, the senator from Nebraska fiercely opposed the troop surge in Iraq, though, unlike the senator from Illinois, Hagel had previously supported the Iraq War. Hagel was the only Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to join then-chairman Joe Biden’s resolution against the surge, and one of just 34 senators to vote for it on the floor. But elsewhere, Hagel’s record is at odds, at least, with Obama’s rhetoric.

And (2), Obama’s rhetoric and his administration’s policies were, in the first term, constrained in critical ways. His nomination of Hagel seems like a sign that Obama intends to unfetter himself in the second term. This is a point I made in my piece yesterday:

Consider what Hagel’s nomination signifies. Unlike his predecessor, who called the defense cuts built into the sequester “disastrous,” Hagel thinks they’re A-OK. And that’s precisely why he’s the president’s man. As David Brooks put it, Hagel has been nominated “to supervise the beginning of [a] generation-long process of defense cutbacks,” necessitated both by the president’s ambivalence about American global hegemony and by his preference for butter over guns in our impending debt and entitlement reckonings. Hagel is also functionally neutral in the Arab–Israeli conflict, an avowed opponent of military intervention in Iran, and (after his rebirth as an Iraq War skeptic) a maximally circumspect foreign-policy “realist” who would be more than content to oversee a net U.S. withdrawal from global hotspots (including, but not limited to, Af-Pak).

This constellation of foreign-policy views is not too different from that of candidate Obama, circa 2007, 2008, or even 2009. That such views are nonetheless leftward of the actual policies that have emerged from the Obama administration may sound odd, but in fact reflects how outside the foreign-policy mainstream those views were and to a certain extent still are. Even if the military-industrial complex isn’t the evil conspiracy of caricature, it is nevertheless real, and governed by dynamics that cut across electoral cycles. This is why the civil servants and contractors who populate the foreign-policy and defense bureaucracies, along with their symbiotic appropriators in Congress, often overwhelm the wide-eyed political promises of newly elected executives and why presidents are often more hawkish than they had been as candidates. This all might be chalked up to mere inertia; but also, and more importantly, there is a bipartisan preponderance of policymakers and policy-influencers — from think tankers to congressmen — who are more bullish on the use of American power, and more dispositionally pro-Israel than is the president.

This has made it difficult for President Obama to actualize candidate Obama’s foreign policy, and explains why he has not been able to sever himself more cleanly from the Bush era. Installing Hagel gives him a powerful ally in this fight, and four years to maneuver without the political massaging (i.e., timely pivoting toward pro-Israel groups) necessitated by a reelection campaign. That Hagel is nominally a Republican, and thus can coat the policies in a patina of bipartisanship, doesn’t hurt either.

Once you understand that the president’s rhetoric isn’t necessarily a reflection of his preferences and why, the two WaPo editorials actually make sense. In short, the Post’s position seems to be: Hagel is to the left of first-term Obama on critical defense issues, and his nomination signals that second-term Obama will be, too; that’s bad.

Indeed, it is.