During his first term, President Barack Obama steered a middle course that displeased people on both extremes of the political spectrum. His health-care law eschewed the public option in favor of a private mandate. His stimulus package proved his socialism to some; to others, his fealty to Wall Street. His waffling during the fiscal-cliff negotiations had members of both parties asking whether he had a backbone. Now that Obama has decisively won reelection, they may have their answer. Its name is Chuck Hagel.
Hagel represented Nebraska in the U.S. Senate from 1998 to 2009. In many ways, his path to politics places him in what used to be the mainstream of the Republican Party. He started a business that made him rich. He ran an investment-banking firm. He even sits on the board of an oil company. But before all that he was a decorated infantryman who had volunteered to go to Vietnam. His experience as a veteran—and its influence on his views about sending troops into harm’s way—is what makes Obama’s choice of Hagel impressive and bold.
It’s also what makes neoconservatives nervous. During the 2002 Senate debate over the resolution to authorize military action in Iraq, Hagel delivered a stirring, prescient speech warning of the unforeseen consequences of invading. Nevertheless, he voted for the resolution. Yet as the body count rose and the prospects for stability diminished, Hagel’s doubts grew. By the time President George W. Bush called for a troop surge, Hagel had had enough. “We better be damn sure we know what we’re doing, all of us, before we put twenty-two thousand more Americans into that grinder,” Hagel said, and this time he backed up his words with his vote.
That dovish disposition has incurred the ire of prominent advocates of the Iraq war. Some have gone so far as to charge Hagel with anti-Semitism. His sins? He referred to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee as “the Jewish lobby.” What he should have said, of course, was that AIPAC lobbies on behalf of Israel, not Jews. Others have accused Hagel of homophobia because in 1998 he called a Bill Clinton ambassadorial nominee “aggressively gay.” Yet at the time he also said that being gay shouldn’t disqualify someone from being an ambassador. Still, both comments were regrettable—and he has apologized.
Not that it mattered to Hagel’s critics. They know that he is neither an anti-Semite nor a homophobe. No, those smears were preludes to the real battle over his skepticism about the use of U.S. military power and his refusal to pretend that Israel can do no wrong. Neocons don’t like that he favors trimming the Pentagon’s budget. They can’t stomach that he is skeptical about unilateral sanctions against Iran and is willing to criticize Israel’s right-wing government. Hagel’s skepticism might make it harder for Israel to launch a preemptive strike against Iran, something that would inevitably draw the United States into another military conflict in the region. But what distresses Hagel’s detractors most is his commitment to the idea that military force should be used only as a last resort. In other words, they see the Hagel nomination for what it is: a repudiation of the aggressive foreign policy that has kept the United States fighting wars for over a decade.
“They sort of think we should have just gone away,” complains William Kristol, one of the most prominent neocons. If the neocons aren’t about to go away, they might at least show some embarrassment at the spectacular failure of the misadventure they set in motion—a million Iraqis displaced, tens of thousands of civilians and nearly forty-five hundred U.S. troops dead. Instead, the country has to endure the continued self-justification of those who championed the most egregious foreign-policy blunder in a generation.
Thanks to the endorsement of New York Senator Charles Schumer, it seems the campaign against Hagel will fail. Yet Schumer’s support appears to have come at a high price. Hagel now says he’ll do everything in his power to make sure Iran doesn’t develop nuclear weapons. Whether that means Hagel will support an Israeli strike or the use of U.S. military force remains to be seen.
Putting someone with Hagel’s views in charge of the Pentagon could have a dramatic impact on how the United States uses its military power. After a first term in which he aggressively combated terrorism, Obama now has the credibility and flexibility to bring U.S. military and diplomatic initiatives into better balance. In picking Hagel the president is sending a clear message that it is time to reconsider the scope of U.S. military activity abroad. National security, one hopes, will no longer be synonymous with never-ending war.