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 January 10, 2013 09:54 AM | TrackBack (0)

Hi Greg, just a head's up that your J Street link is broken. Nice to see you take notice of them, I'd hate for your readers to miss the chance to learn more.

Posted by: Broken Link at January 10, 2013 11:29 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

OK, Chuck Hagel has served his country with distinction at great personal cost. But Tom Friedman talks to cab drivers, in several languages, on his way to luxury hotels in mid-eastern capitols. Really now, who would you rather listen to? Someone who has walked the walk, or the president of the Armchair Interventionists Society, whose most famous foreign policy pronouncement is, "Suck on this."

Posted by: Adams at January 10, 2013 12:36 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Good post, but I think you misunderstand the issue with the AIPAC gaffe.

It's not that AIPAC represents interests outside those of Jews (evangelicals, neocons), and thus can't accurately be a Jewish lobby. It's that AIPAC doesn't represent all Jews. Calling it the Jewish lobby comes close to stereotyping all Jews in a way common to antisemites.

There's no evidence that Hagel's an antisemite, but this conflation, of Israelis with Jews, has been used frequently by haters, and is part of a larger pattern typing Jews as tribal, caballistic, self interested.

There's a reason we say two Jews, three opinions. This locution, the Jewish lobby, implies we're all the same, and it's not hard to see where that road leads...

Posted by: James at January 10, 2013 05:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm trying to visualize how suffocating clutches can eviscerate anything, particularly when supine.

The concept of evisceration implies sharp edges, which beyond a certain point preclude suffocation since the victim would bleed to death long before respiration was extinguished. It is of course possible that suffocating clutches could belong to a creature that killed by constriction, like a python, and ate by ripping into the guts of its prey, like a lion. But what would be the point of eviscerating something, even the foreign policy class, without eating it? It just doesn't sound very practical, and doing any of this from a supine position...well, as I say, it's just a little difficult to form a mental picture.

Welcome back, Greg.

Posted by: Zathras at January 16, 2013 11:30 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

zathras: tks for your amusing comment, good for a rapid chuckle on a sunday morning pass-through hong kong. if i ever wrote w/ more regularity, it goes w/out saying an editor would be desperately needed! re other comments the link was fixed and i believe i did get the point on jewish vs israeli, but perhaps my (rapid) posting was a bit unclear there...again, the need for an editor! cheers, gd

Posted by: greg djerejian at January 19, 2013 09:44 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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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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