Chuck Hagel is no political progressive, but the former Nebraska senator does have a history of butting heads with neoconservatives, the defense industry, and the Israel lobby.
Phyllis Bennis, last updated: January 09, 2013
The Nation (via Foreign Policy in Focus)
Chuck Hagel isn’t anyone I’d pick to be in a position of power. He’s a conservative Republican, a military guy who volunteered to fight in Vietnam. According to Forbes magazine, during Hagel’s tenure in the Senate “he favored school prayer, missile defense and drilling in Alaska, while opposing abortion, same-sex marriage and limits on assault guns. He voted in favor of every defense authorization bill that came up during the dozen years he served, while opposing extension of Medicare benefits to prescription drugs. Such stances earned him a lifetime rating of 84 percent from the American Conservative Union.” Forbes, of course, thinks this is all great.
Me, not so much. But okay, we’re talking about Secretary of Defense, not someone responsible for domestic and social policy. Well, first of all, if I had to choose a secretary of defense, I’d start with someone who recognized that their first requirement would be to transform the US war machine from an aggressive into a defensive institution… something it’s never been before. If we assume it had to be a member of Congress, I’d start with Barbara Lee or Dennis Kucinich, not Chuck Hagel.
But that isn’t the choice we face. The alternatives to Hagel won’t be the heroic Oakland congresswoman or the committed defender of the Department of Peace, they’ll be military bureaucrats who have never said a word outside their respective boss’s talking point boxes.
At the end of the day, this isn’t about Hagel vs. anybody. This is about what President Obama is signaling by his nomination of Hagel as Secretary of Defense—and about the political forces arrayed against him.
Hagel’s nomination engendered bitter, angry opposition from the moment it was floated as a trial balloon two weeks ago. And the fact that Obama went ahead with the nomination, despite the opposition and the threats that the Senate would never confirm Hagel, is a good indication that on at least some critical foreign policy issues, Obama is not prepared to allow either the pro-Israeli lobbies or the hard-core neoconservatives, in and outside of Washington, to determine whom he could and could not choose as secretary of defense.
The opposition was from both of those separate, though overlapping, Washington cohorts. Pro-Israel forces are outraged that President Obama might appoint someone who once had the temerity to warn that the lobby “intimidates a lot of people” in Washington. Of course, it would have been better if Hagel had properly identified the “pro-Israel lobby” rather than the sloppy “Jewish lobby” description, which ignores the huge influence of the right-wing Christian Zionism; Hagel himself apologized for the careless language. (If Israel didn’t identify itself as a “Jewish state,” with all of the resulting apartheid policies that go along with it, it might be easier to distinguish.) But whatever the language, it’s a significant exposé of the perceived power of the lobby, enough that AIPAC, the lobby’s most authoritative component, pulled back from criticizing Hagel as soon as the nomination was final, leaving the most extremist components, such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, to continue the attacks.
We should be clear, of course—Hagel is no supporter of a just solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict based on human rights, international law and equality for all. He told Ha’aretz that any solution “should not include any compromise regarding Israel’s Jewish identity.” That’s code for accepting Israel’s two-tiered legal system, which privileges Jewish over non-Jewish citizens and denies Palestinian citizens crucial rights available only to Jews. Again, we aren’t looking at a choice between supporters of international law and an uncritical supporter of Israel—but having a secretary of defense who acknowledges the danger of putting Israeli interests above those of the United States and willing to challenge the pro-Israel lobbies is a pretty interesting development. (And if Obama saw the nomination also as an opportunity to pay back Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for his all-but-official endorsement of Mitt Romney during last year’s election, that’s likely just a bonus.)
Neocon anger at Chuck Hagel isn’t new. Some of it parallels the frustration of the Israel lobbies—Hagel’s refusal to tow the AIPAC line, particularly refusing to call for war with Iran. He warned that “military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities would signal a severe diplomatic failure and would have their own serious negative consequences for the United States and for our allies.” Hagel has instead called for direct, bilateral negotiations with Iran, and in 2010 he warned of the consequences of attacking Iran, saying “Once you start you’d better be prepared to find 100,000 troops because it may take that.” Notorious Israel occupation-backer and Harvard law school professor Alan Dershowitz announced he would testify against Hagel on Iran, calling his nomination “a bad choice for the country.”
Hagel as secretary of defense doesn’t guarantee there will be no war with Iran—but Obama’s nomination of him, and willingness to defend him against the soft-on-Iran accusations, signals that the White House isn’t looking to move towards a military attack any time soon.
The neocons also have it in for Hagel because he was one of the first Republicans to criticize their favorite project, the war in Iraq. Of course he voted to fund it every chance he got—he’s no peace activist. But Hagel broke politically with George W. Bush and his own party, calling Bush’s foreign policy “reckless,” and called Bush’s 2007 “surge in Iraq “a ping-pong game with American lives.” He didn’t, however, express any concern for Iraqi lives, nor did he ultimately vote against the war—either in 2002 at the moment of the crucial authorize-the-war vote, or later when funding bills came before him. As David Corn wrote in 2002, Hagel “cautioned humility: ‘I share the hope of a better world without Saddam Hussein, but we do not really know if our intervention in Iraq will lead to democracy in either Iraq or elsewhere in the Arab world.’ Bottom line: Hagel feared the resolution would lead to a war that would go badly but didn’t have the guts to say no to the leader of his party.”
Would he challenge Obama—who’s not from his party—if faced with a potentially disastrous new war—in Syria, say—or escalation of the drone war in Yemen, or something else? Probably not—but there’s that slight bit of hope that it could be somehow different than appointing a Pentagon insider bureaucrat.
And then there’s the Pentagon budget. Hagel has called it “bloated,” pretty amazing for a future secretary of defense. Obama may have felt that a decorated Republican military veteran would be the best choice to convince a Republican-controlled congress that some cuts will have to be made. There’s no way Hagel will argue the realities and consequences of the whole military budget—the impact on jobs and healthcare of the $111 billion we spent this year on a failed war in Afghanistan, the million dollars per year it costs to keep just one young soldier in Afghanistan and the fact that we could bring home that one soldier and have enough money to hire her and 19 more young former soldiers at good $50,000/year middle-class union jobs. He won’t argue that.
But still—a Pentagon chief who actually believes his agency’s budget should be cut—that’s new. And ultimately, that’s probably the most important reason for the attack dogs slavering for Hagel’s skin. The Washington Post editorialized that Hagel’s willingness to cut military spending was one of the key reasons to oppose his nomination. Behind the Post, of course, are the military producers and contractors whose CEOs fortunes stand (rarely fall) on the Pentagon’s budget.
Unfortunately, military cuts of the size we really need to rebuild the economy and make our country and the world truly safer—ending the Afghanistan war quickly and entirely, stopping the drone wars, moving towards complete nuclear disarmament, closing the 1,000 or so overseas military bases—will not be on the agenda of Chuck Hagel or anyone else at the Pentagon. But still. Better someone in charge who agrees that Pentagon spending is not sacrosanct than someone who views their role to keep every last billion dollars in military hands.
The Post editorial board went on to condemn Hagel’s politics overall. Most cross-party appointments, they said, “offer a veneer of bipartisanship to the national security team.” But Hagel would be different—he would not “move it toward the center, which is the usual role of such opposite-party nominees. On the contrary: Mr. Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term—and place him near the fringe of the Senate.”
Whatever else he is, Chuck Hagel is no leftist. Standing to the left of President Obama’s center-right military policy is not a very high bar. But again—standing up to AIPAC, the defense industry (and members of Congress accountable to them) and the still-powerful neocons makes the Hagel appointment a good move for Obama. And it gives the rest of us a basis to push much farther to end the wars, to close the bases, to cut the Pentagon funding, to tax the military profiteers.
Phyllis Bennis directs the New Internationalism project at the Institute for Policy Studies.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and a former official in the Obama State Department who has been called Washington’s “go-to” Iran analyst. He has for years taken a stridently alarmist tone with respect to Iran’s nuclear program and has been critical of the Obama administrations nuclear negotiations with Iran. In July 2014, Takeyh co-authored a report by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs that called for increasing “pressure” on Iran during the on-going negotiations.
Michele Flournoy is a former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration and head of the “liberal hawk” Center for a New American Security. Recently named to the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board, Flournoy has warned against a preemptive U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran, although she once told the rightwing Jerusalem Post that “Israel can rely on Obama to stop a nuclear Iran. … [T]he policy is not containment and I think he is serious about that.” Flournoy has also called for increases in defense spending, writing in an op-ed with former Bush Pentagon official Eric Edelman that "the U.S. military must be able to deter or stop aggression in multiple theaters, not just one, even when engaged in a large-scale war.”
Ashton Carter, former deputy secretary of defense in the Barack Obama administration, is a longtime academic and Pentagon bureaucrat who has advocated using military force as part of controversial nuclear counter-proliferation programs. During his time as deputy defense secretary, Carter strongly criticized cuts in the defense budget. One observer responded to Carter’s criticisms arguing that the cuts “resulted in part from the inefficient and unsound choices the Pentagon has made over the past decade, much of it occurring on Carter’s own watch.” Carter was recently appointed senior executive at the Markle Foundation, an organization that “works to realize the potential of information technology to address previously intractable public problems, for the health and security of all Americans.”
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, is now arguably better known as a member of the NCAA’s College Football Playoff selection committee. As an official in the George W. Bush administration, Rice was closely associated with the government’s warrantless wiretapping and interrogation programs, during which detainees were tortured. In 2014, it was revealed that she helped kill a 2003 New York Times story about a failed CIA attempt to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. The journalist behind the story, James Risen, eventually put the story in a book and endured several years of court battles with the U.S. government over the identity of his sources, which he eventually lost.
A professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Eliot Cohen has been described as "the most influential neocon in academe." Cohen has been a vociferous critic of the Obama administration, accusing it of being insufficiently committed to using military force abroad and "promiscuous" in its diplomacy with traditional U.S. adversaries. Cohen, who had multiple roles in the Bush administration, recently was given a position at the “liberal hawk” think tank Center for a New American Security, which is widely viewed as having played an important role shaping many of the Obama administration’s military policies.
For media inquiries,
or call 202-234-9382.
October, 15 2014
The crumbling Levant poses a greater danger than ISIL and must be addressed first and foremost by the states of the region.
October, 15 2014
America’s Cold-War era Middle East policy of relying on a cast of autocratic states plus Israel must change.
October, 14 2014
The longstanding U.S. policy of not engaging Iran and working to contain its influence in the Middle East has in fact contributed to rising sectarian tensions and extremism in the region.
October, 09 2014
The U.S. track record of using military force in the Middle East has tended to make things worse rather than better, and there is no reason to believe things will be different in the campaign against ISIS.
October, 07 2014
The Obama administration has announced that the strict standards it set-out last year to prevent civilian deaths in U.S. drone strikes will not apply to U.S. military actions in Iraq and Syria.
October, 07 2014
President Obama’s anti-ISIL strategy is drawing growing skepticism amid ISIL gains against the Kurds in the Syrian town of Kobani and on the eastern edge of Al-Anbar province in Iraq in spite of U.S.-led airstrikes and recent U.S. helicopter gunship attacks.
October, 07 2014
With a wide gap between the two sides in the Iran nuclear talks over how much nuclear enrichment capacity Iran should have, the prospect of not reaching a deal is on the horizon. Tolerating Iranian operation of nine or ten thousand centrifuges would be the lesser of two evils – the greater evil being no deal.