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Will Chuck Hagel’s Appointment Actually Help the Anti-War Left?

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.

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.

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