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.