Tag: cabinet

Hagel’s a Good Fight

Chuck Hagel isn’t the consistent dove his opponents say he is, and he’s no civil libertarian. But his nomination as secretary of defense is still a fight worth having.

Hagel shouldn’t have much trouble in the Senate armed services committee. Among the panel’s Democrats, Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan is a Hagel booster, as is Rhode Island senator Jack Reed. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) seems supportive. Thus far the others have not commented or are noncommittal. On the other side, Roger Wicker (R-MS) has announced his opposition (via twitter), and John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) seem likely to vote no. But the incoming ranking member, Jim Inhofe (R-OK), was positively inclined a month ago. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Jeff Sessions (R-AL) appear open to persuasion. With broad Democratic support likely, it will take only a couple Republicans to get the majority Hagel needs to reach the full Senate.

But there may be only a few Republican yes votes in the Senate. Senators John Coryn (R-OK), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Dan Coats (R-IN) will vote no. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) threatens a hold. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is lukewarm. A few others, including both Nebraska senators, are noncommittal. The rest are silent, so far. Most Democrats should vote yes. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) seem supportive. Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) offer vague non-endorsements. At this point, who knows what will happen in a floor vote, but with 55 Democrats, 60 needed for confirmation, and an engaged White House, Hagel’s odds seem better than even.

As Chris Preble notes, one virtue of Hagel becoming secretary is that he is willing to cut the massive defense budget and is more skeptical than most Washington bigwigs about war. He has a tendency to offer sensible observations that count as apostasy in U.S. foreign policy circles. Examples include his claim that the U.S. trade embargo toward Cuba is senseless (a view shared by most people outside Miami, which brought Rubio’s hold threat), the notion that diplomatic engagement with odious regimes is generally worthwhile, doubts about the utility of coercive sanctions on Iran (which academics that study the matter mostly share), and, of course, his willingness to admit the existence of an Israeli lobby (granted, he shouldn’t have said “jewish”) and a distinction between U.S. and Israeli interests.

As Hagel’s more reasonable critics note, having never served on a defense committee, his qualifications are not ideal. Serving in Vietnam does not teach you much about how to run the Pentagon. But Hagel’s military experience does seem to have encouraged his skepticism about the wisdom of generals and admirals—a useful tendency for a Secretary of Defense, especially one that may have to overcome the brass’s resistance to ending a war and implementing a drawdown. Deputies like Ashton Carter can help with management.

Another virtue of Hagel’s nomination is that it may show that the interests that police speech on these issues are not as powerful as they seem. As nearly everyone reading this knows, the most vocal opponents of Hagel’s nomination are the familiar band of neoconservatives ever-eager for war, the editorialists that reliably agree with them, and some pro-Israel (really Likunik) lobbying groups. Also opposed to Hagel are some gay-rights advocates angered by his voting record on that issue, including his 1998 comment calling an ambassadorial nominee “openly, aggressively gay,” for which he recently apologized.

If Hagel loses in the Senate, many will say that the Israeli lobby and their neoconservative friends did it. His loss, you might say, will enhance their perceived power and quiet those tempted to challenge the ideology they enforce. But since Obama floated his name and brought attacks, not nominating him would have had the same result. So why not now have a fight?

There may be some political benefit even in losing. Neoconservative attacks on Hagel come largely on matters where the public takes Hagel’s side—the military budget, bombing Iran, the occupation of Iraq, the wisdom of intervention in Syria. If Senators like McCain, Graham, and Kelly Ayotte (of the lately anti-war New Hampshire) attack Hagel on these grounds, they may harm themselves and their cause. Floor debate might allow a senator to ask Dan Coats how being anti-war means disrespecting the military. Even on Israel, there may be virtue in exposing a wider public to the irony of the Israeli lobby intimating people by attacking someone for saying the Israeli lobby intimidates people.

If Hagel wins, it will demonstrate that his opponents aren’t all they are cracked up to be. Neoconservatives obviously lose regularly; various wars they said our security depends on never occurred, and those that did were generally smaller than they’d like. The Israel lobby, on the other hand, seems more successful. But they regularly win because there is rarely anyone strong pushing back—no Palestinian lobby, for example. Americans are so safe from Middle-Eastern trouble that, most of the time, few costs—blood, treasure, votes—come from doing whatever those most interested want. When their ambitions bring conflict with something powerful, like a lobby of similar heft, strongly anti-war sentiment, or a determined president just reelected, the other side can win.

I argued that Susan Rice was a bad choice for secretary of state because she is unfailingly pro-war, and that her ascension would show, again, that being pro-war is generally politically safer than being against it. In terms of perception, Hagel is now nearly the opposite. If he became secretary it would indicate that it’s not verboten for ambitious politicos to be realists that question the virtue of violent meddling in the Middle East and supportive of substantial military cuts. A few less people might bite their tongue for fear that someday the likes of Abe Foxman, Bill Kristol, and their PR flaks will call them anti-semites and keep them from getting an important job. One appointment may not unleash the perestroika needed to undermine the hawkish consensus that prevails on these issues, but it would help.

The Neocons’ Fight over Chuck Hagel Moves to Act Two

By nominating Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense, after an excruciatingly long period of uncertainty and speculation, President Obama has demonstrated that he is disinclined to follow the advice of the neoconservatives who have been his harshest critics. Bill Kristol’s aggressive campaign to dissuade Obama from picking Hagel failed. Now the attention turns to a fight over his confirmation in the Senate. In the end, I believe he will be confirmed.

After all, such fights are rare. Presidents are generally granted wide latitude in picking members of their cabinet, and it is unlikely that many of the 55 Senators who caucus with the Democrats (including independents Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine) will pick a fight with a just-re-elected Democratic president. Such a fight would erode Obama’s political capital, capital that he will need to push through his—and their—domestic agenda.

The remaining unknown, therefore, is whether the neoconservatives’ grip over the Republican Party has finally been broken. Kristol and the neocons will argue that Hagel should not be confirmed. Will Republicans, aside from the predictable voices in the Senate’s interventionist caucus, listen?

It is remarkable that the party continues to consult with the same people who championed the wars that have so tarnished the GOP’s once stellar brand. But consider the case against Hagel on its merits. Hagel is not a pacifist, and certainly not the dove that his critics have claimed he is. He remains firmly within the foreign policy mainstream in Washington, and has supported past wars that I have opposed. But his general inclination, hardened after the debacle of Iraq, is to avoid foreign crusades, and to resist pressure to send U.S. troops into harm’s way in pursuit of unclear objectives that do not advance U.S. interests. That is a mindset that the neoconservatives cannot abide.

But there are broader principles at play, including traditional deference to a president’s wishes with respect to nominees, a deference that is warranted when the person only serves at the discretion of the president (unlike, for example, judges who serve for life). Even conservative commentators who have questions about some of Hagel’s views, including George Will, have signaled that Hagel should be confirmed. Other respected foreign policy hands who came out in favor of Hagel before the nomination was announced include: Brent Scowcroft and Anthony Zinni (and nine other retired senior military officers), nine former ambassadors, including Nicholas Burns, Ryan Crocker Daniel Kurtzer, and Thomas Pickering. In a separate op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Crocker reaffirmed the group’s support for the Hagel nomination, praising Hagel “as a person of integrity, courage and wisdom.” The neocons, therefore, by picking a fight over Hagel, have also taken on a distinguished roster of foreign policy experts. Republican senators wishing to put distance between the party and the neocons should be happy to confirm a nominee who shares their views on most issues, and who is supported by people who have not been so badly wrong, so often.

I don’t believe that Barack Obama chose Chuck Hagel in order to humiliate the Republican Party. I don’t think he intended to shine the light on the bitter divide between the neoconservatives and traditional foreign policy realists. I think he picked Hagel because he likes him, and trusts him. But I agree with an anonymous Obama administration official about what the Hagel fight could mean for the GOP (via BuzzFeed): “If the Republicans are going to look at Chuck Hagel, a decorated war hero and Republican who served two terms in the Senate, and vote no because he bucked the party line on Iraq, then they are so far in the wilderness that they’ll never get out.”

Why Americans Should Care about the Hagel Nomination

Chuck Hagel favors a much more ambitious American role in the world than I do. To answer one of the more ridiculous questions posed during the pre-nomination controversy (and that is saying something), he is not a pacifist. He is, however, a sensible, cautious person who has fought and bled for his country. And he is an independent thinker who is not cowed by Beltway politesse as so many in this town are.

The reason people should care about his nomination is fairly simple. Hagel successfully running the DC gauntlet could be a perestroika moment in the American foreign and defense policy debate, and possibly even loosen the neoconservative stranglehold on the GOP. That’s something worth caring about.

As to what effect Hagel would have on DOD and/or U.S. defense policy, it’s actually tough to say for sure. He has admitted that the Pentagon is bloated and deserves to be cut. So he is unlikely to strike the Situational Keynesian pose that the GOP defense policy establishment have. He has historically been a skeptic about the benefits of bombing Iran and seems to favor a more serious effort at diplomacy. But I hope the hearing will smoke out the nominee’s views a bit better on these issues.

There’s a certain sense that this whole debate is about neocons vs. people who disagree with neocons, and to be frank, there’s something to that. But it’s not about settling old scores or schadenfreude. It’s about slightly reshaping the American foreign policy establishment.

Take Bill Kristol. The “Hagel hates Jews” nonsense owes everything to Kristol. In case it still needs to be said, Hagel is not an anti-Semite. There are too many testaments to this reality to point to (including notable reality-checks from David Brooks and Bush the Younger’s Pentagon comptroller Dov Zakheim), and the entire effort to brand him as America’s Ahmadinejad should not have been considered even for a moment.

But this sort of nonsense is Kristol’s stock and trade, at least on foreign policy issues. On December 19, he announced in a podcast that the reason Hagel should be opposed is that he is “a bitter enemy of Israel.” In the intervening weeks, he quarterbacked a monomaniacal campaign of yellow journalism and innuendo against a candidate who, by the rules of tradition and decorum, could not answer the slurs directly.

By January 4, Kristol was patting himself on the back, praising the “substantive” campaign waged by his merry band of bloggers against Hagel, but once again deploying the nonsense about Hagel harboring an “unpleasant distaste for Israel and Jews.”

Unfortunately, people like Kristol hold outsized sway over wonky, inside baseball decisions like the Hagel nomination—decisions that are influenced almost entirely by elites, without input from voters. So the neocon modus operandi isn’t to win elections with neoconservative candidates, but rather to shape the contours of the conventional wisdom in Washington such that people who don’t have passionate views about defense spending or the Middle East at least confront a severely circumscribed range of acceptable opinion from which to choose.

So I think the reason Kristol and his comrades are fighting so hard on this is to ensure that people who speak out against Kristolian policies like the war in Iraq and a prospective one on Iran cannot survive. That would serve as a powerful deterrent for the large numbers of Republicans who know in their hearts that something is wrong with the neoconservative program.

If Hagel survives this process, it will show that you can stare down the neocons and live to tell the tale. And if the Hagel nomination can demonstrate that you don’t need to fear Bill Kristol, the country and our foreign policy will be better off for it.

On the Moral Dimension of the Election

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Would a staff shakeup — and potentially Cabinet — help the White House and congressional Democrats recover ahead of the 2012 elections?

My response:

If the president’s press conference yesterday is any indication, it’s going to take far more than a White House shakeup for Mr. Obama and congressional Democrats to recover ahead of the 2012 elections. In several ways, the president was asked point blank whether he still resisted “the notion that voters rejected the policy choices [he] made.” His answer? Voters “are not satisfied with the outcomes.” And again: “they’re deeply dissatisfied with the pace of our economic recovery.”
 
Time and again, he declined to draw the connection between his policies and those outcomes, a connection that voters saw plainly. Not all did, to be sure. In fact, it’s instructive to look at two states where Obama’s vision still reigns, California and New York — two “failed states,” if I may draw from the nomenclature of foreign affairs. Still in denial, a good part of the electorate in those states continues to vote for the very people and policies that have driven their welfare states into near bankruptcy, with taxpayers fleeing as tax takers flood in.
 
That points to a matter that has been too little noticed after Tuesday’s electoral results. This election was all about the economy we’re told, by the president (“there is no doubt that people’s number-one concern is the economy”), and especially by administration apologists anxious to shift responsibility to the condition Obama inherited. Yes, the economy weighed heavily in the outcome. But underneath that concern, and far more important, is the moral dimension of our economic condition. States, and a nation, that spend more than they have, that promise more than they can deliver, that impose debts on future generations, and that restrain freedom and sap initiative in the collective pursuit of ends that many reject are behaving irresponsibly and immorally. We are suffocating today under massively irresponsible government. It is that message to which this administration is tone deaf.