Tag: neoconservatives

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.

The Poverty of Affordability Arguments

In the bargaining over avoiding the fiscal cliff, President Obama has taken to framing the argument this way:

We can solve this problem. All Congress needs to do is pass a law that would prevent a tax hike on the first $250,000 of everybody’s income – everybody. (Applause.) That means 98 percent of Americans – and probably 100 percent of you – (laughter) – 97 percent of small businesses wouldn’t see their income taxes go up a single dime. Even the wealthiest Americans would still get a tax cut on the first $250,000 of their income. But when they start making a million, or $10 million, or $20 million you can afford to pay a little bit more. (Applause.) You’re not too strapped.

I’m no political expert, but this seems like a pretty effective, if demagogic, frame: “Ol’ Boehner is just doing the bidding of his bazillionaire paymasters, trying to stick it to regular folks like you.” By framing the debate as being about whether very wealthy people “can afford to pay a little bit more,” Obama skews things in his favor. (On the substance of the argument about increasing taxes to close the gaping fiscal maw, try this from Alan Reynolds or this from Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH).)

And what does John Boehner think about Obama’s framing? Not much, obviously: “We have a huge national debt because Washington spends too much, not because it doesn’t tax people enough.” Boehner rejects the whole affordability frame, proposing his own—“is the problem taxes or spending?”—and adding on an argument that increasing taxes will hurt economic growth. So you’ve got dueling frames.

But what’s of interest to me is the analog of Obama’s frame in the foreign policy/defense spending discussion. In that debate, neoconservatives and liberal imperialists have framed the debate the same way Obama has framed the fiscal cliff debate: except in that case, it’s not about whether wealthy people can afford to pay higher taxes, but whether the United States can afford to continue spending around 50 percent of world military expenditures. Take it away, Robert Kagan:

What about the financial expense? Many seem to believe that the cost of these deployments, and of the armed forces generally, is a major contributor to the soaring fiscal deficits that threaten the solvency of the national economy. But this is not the case, either. As the former budget czar Alice Rivlin has observed, the scary projections of future deficits are not “caused by rising defense spending,” much less by spending on foreign assistance. The runaway deficits projected for the coming years are mostly the result of ballooning entitlement spending. Even the most draconian cuts in the defense budget would produce annual savings of only $50 billion to $100 billion, a small fraction—between 4 and 8 percent—of the $1.5 trillion in annual deficits the United States is facing.

Here again, if the debate is about whether the United States—let’s call us the One Percenters here—can afford to continue frittering away money playing globocop, the advantage is with Kagan and his confreres. But in both cases, Obama and Kagan try to substitute an affordability argument for a propriety/desirability argument. Of course wealthy people can “afford” to pay higher taxes—they’ve done so before, after all. By the same token, the United States can afford to continue funding its globe-girdling military presence. But in neither case do these affordability arguments answer the question: What should happen? To say something is affordable is not to say it is preferable

Obama doesn’t say, “We’ve spent a ton of money over the past 10 years and entitlement costs are ballooning so we’re going to squeeze as much as we can out of the rich and then see where we go from there.” Similarly, Kagan doesn’t lead with his argument that the debt and deficit should be fixed by increasing taxes and sprinkling pixie dust on entitlement costs. Instead, he wants to have the affordability debate. As well he ought to, since the public is increasingly disenchanted with the interventionist foreign policy program.

In neither case should we let the affordability argument carry the day. Boehner rejects the affordability framing of the tax increase debate. Conservatives ought to realize in both cases that something’s affordability is not synonymous with its propriety.

Susan Rice and the Interventionist Caucus

The Associated Press is reporting that Susan Rice, “appears to have a clearer path to succeeding retiring Secretary of State Hilary Rodham Clinton” now that John McCain and Lindsey Graham have softened their opposition to her candidacy. “If she is nominated for the position,” the AP’s Steven Hurst predicted, ”it may signal greater U.S. willingness to intervene in world crises during Obama’s second term.”

Bill Kristol believes that it would, which is why he supports Rice over other qualified candidates, including especially John Kerry (D-MA). Asked on FoxNews Sunday why he prefers Rice over Kerry, Kristol said:

“Because I think Susan Rice has been a little more interventionist than John Kerry…. John Kerry has been against our intervening in every war that we intervened.”

That isn’t entirely true, of course. For example, Kristol noted that Kerry “was for [the second Iraq war] before he was against it.” But as Ben Friedman writes today at U.S. News and World Report, within the generally interventionist foreign-policy community, Susan Rice is more interventionist than most.

In that context, I understand why the Senate’s small (and shrinking) Interventionist Caucus prefers Susan Rice. I understand why Kristol and the neoconservatives do. But I don’t understand why other people support her so strongly. Although the political class favors costly crusades abroad, most everyone outside of that tiny circle believes in leading by example, and favors, in Obama’s words, more “nation building here at home.” In short, Americans generally favor global engagement, but they reject the neoconservative variety (.pdf).

The recent election was not a referendum on foreign policy. The issue barely registered. Although those who cared most about foreign policy favored Obama over Romney by a 56 to 33 margin, those voters represented just 5 percent of the electorate according to a Fox News exit poll. What’s more, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney agreed on most foreign-policy issues. Romney favored more belligerent rhetoric, and huge increases for the Pentagon’s budget, but his prescriptions for the future boiled down to: “What Obama did, just more of it.” More meddling in distant civil wars, more nation building, a heavy U.S. military footprint wherever possible, and more drone strikes with less oversight where ground troops can’t go.

That seems to neatly summarize Susan Rice’s views, also. If Barack Obama nominates Rice to be the next Secretary of State, he will effectively be saying that he doesn’t care what the public wants, and that Mitt Romney was right.

Has Mitt Romney Ditched His Neoconservative Talking Points?

We don’t want another Iraq, we don’t want another Afghanistan. That’s not the right course for us. - Mitt Romney, Presidential Debate, Boca Raton, Florida, October 22, 2012

With these words, Mitt Romney might have made the final, crucial connection to an American public tired of more than a decade of war, and desperate not to start any new ones.

Obama did his best to remind voters of why they haven’t trusted Republicans on foreign policy since 2005. He uttered the word Iraq 10 times. Romney mentioned it three times, once by accident—referring mistakenly to “the president of Iraq—excuse me, of Iran”— and once to explicitly and categorically deny that he had any intentions of going back down that road by launching another war.

Such sentiments can’t make Romney’s neoconservative advisers happy. They are the ones who sold the war in the first place, they peddled a “surge” in a desperate attempt to create a narrative that resembled victory, and it is they, who, to this day, proudly declare that the war was worth fighting. Their every statement betrays how truly marginalized they are, isolated from a public that can see the facts plainly before it, and concludes something very different: this war was a horrible mistake, and one that we are determined not to repeat. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal all but avoided commenting on the substance of Romney’s statements last night—probably because there wasn’t much substance.

Questions remain, however. First, is Mitt Romney truly committed to avoiding Iraq-style wars in the future? If so, why did he choose to surround himself with so many of the war’s most fervent advocates? Second, why is he opposed to additional reductions in the Army and Marine Corps, forces that grew specifically to fight the war that was supposed to be a “cakewalk” but that turned out to be something very different? If Mitt Romney doesn’t intend to engage in costly, open-ended nation-building missions abroad, why does he need a conventional military geared for that purpose? And, third, what lessons from the Iraq war inform his conduct of foreign policy? Was Iraq a good idea, poorly executed, or was this a bad idea from the get-go?

A recent article explained how Romney wanted to draw distinctions between himself and President George W. Bush, starting with the war in Iraq. “The idea that Romney is following the George W. Bush approach is a caricature the Democrats want to draw,” a senior Romney foreign policy adviser told the Los Angeles Times’s Paul Richter, “We’re not going to help them with that.”

They didn’t last night. We’ll find out soon enough if it worked.

Foreign Policy Won’t Win the Election

Mitt Romney’s speech at the Clinton Global Initiative is not going to help him win the election. If he continues wasting time trying to move the needle on foreign policy, he is likely to lose.

The neoconservatives are giving Gov. Romney bad advice. They have repeatedly trashed him on background in the media for not paying enough attention to foreign policy, claiming that focusing on it more would help him win. The facts are not on their side.

If Romney wanted to win the election based on a foreign policy bump, he would have two tasks before him: to make foreign policy a salient issue, and to make voters prefer him on that issue. On the first task, in every poll asking for voters’ top priority, foreign policy/war/terrorism comes in under five percent. However much GOP foreign policy people don’t like it, this election will turn on the economy.

Second, voters prefer Obama to Romney by 15 percent on foreign policy generally, and by 11 percent specifically on foreign policy in the Middle East. Even after the Obama administration’s poor handling of the violence in Egypt and Libya, voters preferred Obama’s response over the Romney camp’s demagoguery by a margin of 45 to 26.

Focusing on foreign policy will not win Romney the election. And if he loses, as in 2008, the Republicans will have the neoconservatives to blame. Whether they would choose to accept the lesson of 2008 and 2012 is another question altogether.