If you follow foreign policy discussions at all you will have noticed the recent commotion around the potential (and now they say planned) nomination of Republican former Senator and current Chevron board member Chuck Hagel to become Obama’s Secretary of Defense.
Hagel, whose policy positions were never exactly progressive – just scan these ratings to get a flavor of where he stands: Chuck Hagel on VoteSmart — ran afoul of his own party’s dogma police by suggesting that the Iraq war was a mistake. Of course, that opposition to the Iraq War which is now being touted so widely as a sign that he is “a war skeptic” didn’t come until 2007 when we had clearly lost. He also upset the Israel First wing of DC-land by suggesting he was an American rather than an Israeli senator and by using the phrase “Jewish lobby.” And as soon as the rumours that Obama might appoint him began, the usual voices were raised against him with the usual accusations made against anyone who is not lockstep in line with AIPAC.
So far, precisely what one would expect but then something else happened. Defending Chuck Hagel and in fact lobbying for his appointment became the cause celebre of folks like Robert Naiman of Just Foreign Policy and MoveOn. The drumbeat was rather stunning – in fact, at times, rather startling in its … fervor:
If we don’t want to spend the next four years under the jackboot of the neocons, then we have to stop the neocons from blocking the nomination of diplomacy advocate, war skeptic and decorated Vietnam combat veteran Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense.
I’m not saying that we’re necessarily going to win this. But at least we can have a real fight. This is like the Warsaw Uprising: the odds against us may be daunting, but we’ll never have a better venue to make our stand.
The Warsaw Uprising? Really?
While I certainly understand – and share – the opposition to AIPAC’s vicious campaigns against anyone who dares question loyalty to the Israeli interests as the cornerstone of US policy – and I understand that some, including Glenn Greenwald, feel that support for Hagel is worthwhile:
But at the very least, Hagel’s confirmation will be a much-needed declaration that some mild dissent on foreign policy orthodoxies and Israel is permitted. It will shatter AIPAC’s veto power and dilute the perception of the so-called “pro-Israel community’s” unchallengeable power.
I have to wonder if such a confirmation really will do that as we watch Hagel’s supporters argue more and more loudly that he really didn’t mean it as Greenwald himself rightly points out in his link to ThinkProgress’ Chuch Hagel’s Pro-Israel Record.
Or look at the Politico article highlighting the Fact Sheet that Hagel’s allies are circulating (PDF download here) that includes such counterpoints to the cheerleaders’ claims that he will stop a war on Iran and oppose sanctions as assurances that Hagel “has never ruled out the use of force and supports keeping all options on the table” and that he is not opposed to sanctions on Iran, merely to unilateral sanctions noting that “in a March 2012 interview, he said the U.S. should “keep ratcheting up the sanctions…” Add in the “Facts” about his fervent support for Israel and it’s hard to see how Hagel breaks any molds in reality.
Of course, it would be folly to expect Obama to appoint someone who actually has views outside the beltway mainstream for any position, let alone Secretary of Defense. And I agree completely with Greenwald’s point that it’s absurd for the usual liberals who urged votes for Obama even with his history on gay rights and other issues to now oppose Hagel supposedly on those grounds.
For those of us who want to actually move for real change let’s look instead to Greenwald’s comment that:
The benefits of a Hagel nomination shouldn’t be overstated. As I said last week, I agree with those who doubt that Hagel will have any real impact on restraining Obama’s aggressive and imperialistic foreign policies.
Moreover, despite the above-reference differences, Hagel in general is squarely within the DC foreign policy consensus on most issues (Obama would never nominate someone who isn’t).
If true, should we really be working to support him? What do we expect to gain – and what meaningful returns do the more eager cheerleaders like Naiman expect – from their particularly vehement pro-Hagel effort?
Greenwald in that final quote above links to a remarkable piece by Charles Davis at False Dichotomy that really sums up the whole wrongheaded “let’s lobby for Hagel” campaign when he writes:
But, in order to create a sign-this-petition! narrative, one often can’t do nuance. So Naiman doesn’t. In another post, this one highlighting Hagel’s establishment support, because antiwar activists care about that sort of thing, he casually refers to former ambassador Ryan Crocker as among the “diplomacy champions and war skeptics” backing the former senator. This would be the same Ryan Crocker appointed by George W. Buish who has said “it’s simply not the case that Afghans would rather have US forces gone,” and dismissed the killing of at least 25 people in Afghanistan, including children, as “not a very big deal.”
That should give you a good idea of the obfuscation going on in the antiwar campaign for a Pentagon chief. This is a problem. If you’re going to play the role of the savvy Washington activist and get involved in the inside baseball that is fights over cabinet appointments, ostensibly to reframe the debate more than anything – we must defeat AIPAC! – you ought not go about reinforcing adherence to orthodoxy and the perceived value of establishment support and credentials. And you ought not cast as heroes of the peace movement people that really shouldn’t be. That’s actually really dangerous.
Davis goes on to point out that:
Yet, some would rather play down Hagel’s pro-war credentials for the all-important narrative. So we cast him as a staunch opponent of a war with Iran, ignoring his repeated assertions that we must “keep all options on the table” with respect to the Islamic Republic, including killing men, women and children. In a piece he coauthored with other establishment foreign policy figures, Hagel’s opposition to war amounted merely to a call to consider its costs – and its benefits.
For instance, “a U.S. attack would demonstrate the country’s credibility as an ally to other nations in the region and would derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions for several years, providing space for other, potentially longer-term solutions,” the senator and his friends wrote. “An attack would also make clear the United States’ full commitment to nonproliferation as other nations contemplate moves in that direction.” Ah, but he mentioned there could be “costs” (though none of those he mentioned were “dead people”). Such is brave, antiwar opposition in Washington.
(Greenwald’s other link is to Max Ajl’s superb post, Why Chuck Hagle is Irrelevant at Jadaliyya which is also a must read.)
So, as we watch the faux DC drama that pretends to be policy debates during the Hagel confirmation, I’m not going to be cheering him on. Some day – perhaps – we’ll begin to understand that only if we stand firm for what is actually right, not for some pretense of “reform” or “bipartisan foreign policy” in which both parties represent a continuation of more of the same will we have any chance to bring about change that can be cheered by us — and by the people who live beneath the threat of our drones and occupying forces.