January 10, 2013

Chuck Hagel Is Mainstream, Except Where It Counts

I suppose this will not come as a huge surprise, but Belgravia Dispatch is delighted that President Obama has officially nominated Chuck Hagel to serve as his Secretary of Defense. I agree with much that Tom Friedman had written in his Christmas Day column entitled "Give Chuck a Chance", albeit with one caveat. Friedman had written: “(s)o, yes, Hagel is out of the mainstream. That is exactly why his voice would be valuable right now. President Obama will still make all the final calls, but let him do so after having heard all the alternatives.”[emphasis added]

Posturing aside, I do not understand how Hagel can be out of the “mainstream”, unless one means the suffocating clutches of supine group-think that have eviscerated much of the foreign policy class. I believe skepticism about a military adventure in Iran is eminently “mainstream”. Indeed, I would go further, and would think that fuller consideration of a “containment” doctrine vis-à-vis Iran should be “mainstream” too—if ultimately diplomacy and sanctions were to run aground, only leaving potentially less desirable military options, and as done with arch-foes in the past of far greater geopolitical strength than Iran (even if the President has ostensibly removed this policy option from the table). I believe skepticism about unilateral Iran sanctions—as compared to the multilateral variety that Hagel more typically has supported—is “mainstream” and indeed, far more intelligent, as unilateral sanctions can be avoided with ease and so have materially less bite.

I believe looking to aggressively haircut the, yes, “bloated” Pentagon budget is “mainstream”, especially in this era of mammoth deficits and looming austerity. I believe suggesting we might wish to dialogue (and/or suggest our allies do so) with increasingly prominent Islamist groups—whether the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or its close cousin Hamas in Gaza, as “mainstream” as—like it or not—one is sometimes better positioned negotiating with hostile entities (as we might well do, for instance, with the Taliban in Afghanistan, or we did with Iran over Afghanistan issues post 9/11, among many other examples), indeed not least, to explore potential fissures and divisions within such movements, as well as to help bolster the security posture of our allies via such dialogues, whether sitting in Kabul or, for that matter, Tel Aviv.

I also think it “mainstream” (if not within the halls of our Congress, alas) to not willy-nilly sign off on every letter and/or resolution that is the effective equivalent—in terms of real value add—as name-calling in the school playground, as opposed to being more focused on more constructive policy-making initiatives (or, as Hagel put it to Aaron David Miller: “AIPAC comes knocking with a pro-Israel letter, and ‘then you’ll get 80 to 90 senators on it. I don’t think I’ve ever signed one of the letters.’ When someone would accuse him of not being pro-Israel because he didn’t sign the letter, Hagel told me [Miller] he responds: “I didn’t sign the letter because it was a stupid letter.")

Finally, I believe it “mainstream” to have questioned the wisdom not only of the Iraq surge, but also of the Afghanistan one, neither of which in my view merited the expenditure in blood and treasure, all things considered.

There has also been the matter of an unfortunate comment Mr. Hagel made about a decade and a half ago about a homosexual individual up for an Ambassadorial nomination, one James Hormel. Prominent gay voices like Andrew Sullivan and Steve Clemons have provided further context there, and I would defer to their views and acceptance of Mr. Hagel’s apology.

Additionally, Mr. Hagel had the misfortune of describing AIPAC as a “Jewish lobby”. The “Israeli lobby” is the preferred locution, as there are non-Jews who make up part of the lobby. Fair enough, although I am puzzled by comments like Senator John McCain’s, for instance: "There's no such thing as a Jewish lobby…There's an Armenian lobby, there's not a Jewish lobby. There's an Israeli lobby. It's called AIPAC, very influential.” So there are no non-Armenians who perhaps out of pro-Christian sentiment favor Armenian-related causes and assist John McCain’s self-described “Armenian lobby”? Or, inversely, regarding Turkish-Americans, there are no non-Turkish background U.S. nationals whom might be part of that particular lobby? And none of those Armenians and/or Turkish-Americans might have different views than ‘their’ lobbies, as we’ve heard critics of Mr. Hagel’s phraseology protest about his reference to a “Jewish lobby”? And what of the Taiwanese-American lobby, or the Polish-American lobby, or say the Cuban-American lobby? Adopting such usages, I suppose Israeli-American lobby—rather than, say, Jewish-American, might be best in class verbiage here, all told? But, really, we are all dancing on the head of a pin some respecting such nomenclature, aren’t we? Perhaps Mr. Hagel might better have said to Aaron David Miller something like: “certain segments of the American Jewish community strongly support AIPAC, along with non-Jewish allies of theirs to include notably some Christian evangelicals, and collectively they have a good deal of influence in Washington, but not dissimilarly than other powerful lobbies like the NRA, so that their influence is probably overstated by some, and understated by others, but regardless, I take my cues on Middle East policy from my head and gut in the context of what I think best serves the U.S. national interest, as I see it, but with due regard to balancing the interests of various allies, and the overall regional situation, but…” Well, you get my point, no? Rather a mouthful. I think J-Street puts it pretty well stating: “Smear a Bagel, not Chuck Hagel”. So let’s be clear: I do not think there is an anti-Semitic bone in Chuck Hagel’s body, and with all due respect to august bodies like the Council on Foreign Relations, I am chagrined they see fit to publish such crudely baiting fare (it should be beneath the Council to publish such material: “(p)erhaps there are answers, and perhaps Mr. Hagel actually has no problem with ‘the Jews’ ").

Regardless, I am sure Mr. Hagel will have more than ample opportunity to clarify his particular phraseology on this point, given that the specter of poor Mr. Hagel’s nomination has left us with the predictable spectacles of soi disant foreign policy notables like Lindsay Graham opining his nomination is an “in your face” selection while parroting Friedman stating: “(q)uite frankly, Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking I believe on most issues regarding foreign policy…” (“quite frankly” typically a dead give-away inanities are about to spew to score political points, as here, regurgitation of the laughable talking point that Hagel is somehow a “fringe” player, not to be trusted with the levers of power at the Pentagon). Graham went on to say, incredibly, that Hagel would be the “most antagonistic secretary of Defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history”. Really? What about President Truman’s Secretary of Defense, James Forrestal, who argued against the partition of Palestine? Ironically, for advocating such positions and stating: "...no group in this country should be permitted to influence our policy to the point it could endanger our national security”, Forrestal got what we might call a precursor to the ‘Hagel treatment’, to the extent that the U.S. Ambassador to Israel James G. McDonald wrote in 1951 describing the attacks on Forrestal as "unjustifiable", "persistent and venomous" and "among the ugliest example of the willingness of politicians and publicists to use the vilest means - in the name of patriotism - to destroy self-sacrificing and devoted public servants.” Le plus ca change.

But I digress. Mr. Friedman, apparently unwittingly, will have supplied varied Congressional ignoramuses with their sound-bites for the nomination fight. Out of the mainstream! Why? Because he's an Israel-hater! A Hezbollah lover! But Hagel is solid enough to beat back this clap-trap amidst the soap-box theater, and I suspect he will grind it through. Indeed, such handicapping is likely one reason why AIPAC has apparently decided to sit this one out, but also I suspect, senior, reasonable and intelligent AIPAC personnel must well realize that Mr. Hagel has voted for some approximately USD 40 billion of aid to Israel over the years, is staunchly committed to its security, and will not disavow the special relationship with Israel, if perhaps not treating is as a quasi-exclusive one as much as some of his predecessors. Put simply, Hagel believes in an Israeli state living peacefully side by side with a Palestinian one in the future, as opposed to careening from conflict to conflict every 5-10 years, and in a highly unsettled region. Shouldn’t we all have that as our goal?

Yes, I realize with the very real security considerations posed by Iran’s nuclear program there is some discomfort about Hagel’s views on aspects of Iran policy. Indeed, if one were to cut out all the noise and imminent Washington burlesque, this is likeliest where genuine policy differences should be aired most vigorously in the confirmation hearings. Hagel, to be sure, has seen war very up close and personal. He doubtless ascribes some to the school of thought, as Winston Churchill aptly put it: “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”, certainly more than some of our arm-chair quarterbacks who likely never gave much of a toss for the grunts on the ground risking their lives on misguided crusades (in sharp distinction to Hagel who will pay special heed to the needs of active personnel and veterans). But Hagel is not some pacifist, anti-war activist. He has voted to support use of force, on various occasions. But regarding Iran, and as he put it in an excellent speech on Iran policy:

The United States needs to weigh very carefully its actions regarding Iran. In a hazy, hair-triggered environment, careless rhetoric and military movements that one side may believe are required to demonstrate resolve and strength…can be misinterpreted as preparations for military options. The risk of inadvertent conflict because of miscalculation is great. The United States must be cautious and wise not to follow the same destructive path on Iran as we did on Iraq. We blundered into Iraq because of flawed intelligence, flawed assumptions, flawed judgments, and questionable intentions. The United States must find a new regional diplomatic strategy to deal with Iran that integrates our regional allies, military power and economic leverage.

I must confess I find nothing particularly objectionable in such thinking whatsoever, but by all means, let the distinguished Senators have at it and robustly discuss substantive differences on Iran policy, or the Pentagon budget, or the rise of China’s Navy, or myriad other topics—but not cheaply tar this public servant with suggestive smears.

All this said, it is true that Hagel is sometimes “out of the mainstream.” He was out of the “mainstream” to have earned two “Purple Hearts” serving in Vietnam (see too this story about the reportedly unique fact that Hagel and his brother served in the very same infantry squad, and quite literally saved each other’s lives). Few of his critics have performed in uniform with such valor, indeed many of them have not even served at all. It speaks to real courage. And it is similarly out of the mainstream to have the backbone, conviction and spine to stand apart from the crowd some and sometimes call out the BS, which Hagel’s occasionally blunt style has not infrequently allowed. Good on him, and good luck to him and the Administration navigating the confirmation process through to a successful confirmation vote. At the end of the day, I think smart money says Hagel will get the job, as he most assuredly deserves and is qualified for, and given the campaign against him consists more of thinly veiled canards than hard facts. These United States will survive. Israel will survive. Indeed, I think the security posture of both will be enhanced by Hagel’s stewardship of the Pentagon. And, speaking of, we will have a Secretary of Defense who, as Ryan Crocker put it aptly, “would run the Defense Department; it would not run him”, which as we all know, is no small feat.

Posted by Gregory at 09:54 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

January 04, 2013

The Sandy Hook School Massacre

I was reminded after the horrific schoolhouse massacre in Connecticut late last year of a passage in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Beyond the sheer carnage, perhaps it was too heartrending aspects of the aftermath such as the moving footage of one of the bereaved fathers emotionally paying tribute to his lost daughter, or that another of the slain six year olds was herself slated to play an angel in the town's annual Christmas pageant. Given such poignant details and regardless of whether one is particularly faithful, the passage where the 'elder'* Zosima provides comfort to a woman who has just lost her three year old son seems somewhat apropos. Important to note, Dostoevsky and his wife Anna Grigorievna had just suffered a very similar loss (their own three year old), so that the passage is somewhat autobiographical. The excerpt is below, from Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky's transcendent translation (at pp. 49-50):

Listen, mother,” said the elder. “Once, long ago, a great saint saw a mother in church, weeping just as you are over her child, whom the Lord had also called to him. ‘Do you not know,’ the saint said to her, ‘how bold these infants are before the throne of God? No one is bolder in the Kingdom of Heaven: Lord, you granted us life, they say to God, and just as we beheld it, you took it back from us. And they beg and plead so boldly that the Lord immediately puts them in the ranks of the angels. And therefore,’ said the saint, ‘you, too, woman, rejoice and do not weep. Your infant, too, now abides with the Lord in the host of his angels.’ That is what a saint said to a weeping woman in ancient times. he was a great saint and would not have hold her a lie. Therefore you, too, mother, know that your infant, too, surely now stands before the throne of the Lord, rejoicing and being glad, and praying to God for you. Weep, then, but also rejoice.”

The woman listened to him, resting her cheek in her hand, her eyes cast down. She sighed deeply.

“The same way my Nikitushka was comforting me, word for word, like you, he’d say: ‘Foolish woman,’ he’d say, ‘why do you cry so? Our little son is surely with the Lord God now, singing with the angels.’ He’d say it to me, and he’d be crying himself, I could see, he’d be crying just like me. ‘I know, Nikitushka,’ I’d say, ‘where else can he be if not with the Lord God, only he isn’t here, with us, Nikitushka, he isn’t sitting here with us like before!’ If only I could just have one more look at him, if I could see him one more time, I wouldn’t even go up to him, I wouldn’t speak, I’d hide in a corner, only to see him for one little minute, to hear him the way he used to play in the backyard and come in and shout in his little voice: ‘Mama, where are you?’ Only to hear how he walks across the room, just once, just one time, pat-pat-pat with his little feet, so quick, so quick, the way I remember he used to run up to me, shouting and laughing, if only I could hear his little feet pattering and know it was him! But he’s gone, dear father, he’s gone and I’ll never hear him again! His little belt is here, but he’s gone, and I’ll never see him, I’ll never hear him again . . . !”

She took her boy’s little gold-braided belt from her bosom and, at the sight of it, began shrieking with sobs, covering her eyes with her hands, through which streamed the tears that suddenly gushed from her eyes.

“This,” said the elder, “is Rachel of old ‘weeping for her children, and she would not be comforted, because they are not.’ This is the lot that befalls you, mothers, on earth. And do not be comforted, you should not be comforted, do not be comforted, but weep. Only each time you weep, do not fail to remember that your little son is one of God’s angels, that he looks down at you from there and sees you, and rejoices in your tears and points them out to the Lord God. And you will be filled with this great mother’s weeping for a long time, but in the end it will turn into quiet joy for you, and your bitter tears will become tears of quiet tenderness and the heart’s purification, which saves from sin. And I will remember your little child in my prayers for the repose of the dead. What was his name? Alexei, dear father." A lovely name! After Alexei, the man of God? Of God, dear father, of God. Alexei, the man of God"**

Dostoevsky returns to the theme in other parts of the book, for instance (at p. 292):

God restores Job again, gives him wealth anew; once more many years pass, and he has new children, different ones, and he loves them--Oh Lord, one thinks, "but how could he so love those new ones, when his former children are no more, when he has lost them? Remembering them, was it possible for him to be fully happy, as he had been before, with the new ones, however dear they might be to him? But it is possible, it is possible: the old grief, by a great mystey of human life, gradually passes into quiet, tender joy; instead of young, ebullient blood comes a mild, serene old age: I bless the sun's rising each day and my heart sings to it as before, but now I love its setting even more, its long slanting rays, and with them quiet, mild, tender memories, dear images from the whole of a long and blessed life--and over all is God's truth, moving, reconciling, all-forgiving!”

Indeed, the very novel's dedication (to this wife Anna) reads: "Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit" (John 12:24).

During episodes such as these, I prefer to turn to such perspectives than those of abysmal hacks carping on about Rupert Murdoch's pro-gun regulation tweets, as they merrily turn against their former patrons amidst the internecine shrieks. Anyone who denies the epidemic of gun violence is a national issue of utmost import requiring multi-faceted solutions (yes, to include greater regulation as part of the overall approach, and not just talk of armed guards and 'concealed carry' as supposed panaceas) does not merit much, if any, serious attention.

* The concept of the 'elder' might have been partly inspired by Paissy Velichkovsky, the so-called 'father of the Russian elders.' Related, and as one of the end-notes to the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation also states: "Dostoevsky owned a copy of the 1854 edition of Velichkovsky's translation of the homilies of St. Isaac the Syrian, a seventh-century monk...St. Isaac, whose spiritual influence has been very great, seems also to have influenced Dostoevsky's elder Zosima."

** The Dostoevsky's deceased child was also named Alexei. Additionally, as another end-note clarifies: "St. Alexis, a Greek anchorite who died around 412 A.D., is much loved in Russia, where he is known as "Alexei, the man of God." And, of course, the book's protagonist is named Alexei (Alyosha) Karamazov, and is on occasion referred to as a "man of God" by the author.

Posted by Gregory at 04:48 PM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

About Belgravia Dispatch

Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.


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