Chuck Hagel and the
Return of the Old Right

by , February 01, 2007

Sen. Chuck Hagel’s interview with GQ, no less, is interesting on a number of levels – as a barometer of his status as “the new McCain,” as the statement of an antiwar Republican of the Old Right school, as an expression of sheer outrage at the deception that dragged us into war – but one statement in the midst of it struck me as particularly significant: “Is it strange,” he was asked, “for you to be allied on these issues [the war and civil liberties] with the antiwar left, which is not exactly your constituency?” His answer:

“I think these issues are starting to redefine the political landscape. You are going to see alliances and relationships develop that are based on this war. You are going to see a reorientation of political parties.”

The idea that war has a transformative effect on the political culture was the theme of a speech I gave to the second Antiwar.com conference, the one that featured Alex Cockburn as the lunch speaker and Pat Buchanan in the evening. This was way back in 2000, when, you’ll recall, the Clintonian Democrats were rampaging through the former Yugoslavia and bombing Iraq with clock-like regularity, imposing punishing sanctions costing many thousands of Iraqi lives – and piously insisting that yes, “we think the price is worth it,” as Madeleine Albright infamously put it. March of that year was a lonely time for antiwar activists, yet even then it was possible to see the light at the end of the tunnel. The theme of the conference was “Beyond Left and Right: The New Face of the Antiwar Movement,” and I assured my audience that “today the great realignment has progressed far enough so that we can begin to see the shape of the new political landscape, or at least the broad outlines of it.” After all, I averred, it’s not as if this switching of political polarities hadn’t happened before:

“If we look at the parallel histories of the War Party and the party of Peace, we can see a whole series of such realignments, starting with the First World War and its aftermath. The crusading spirit of the War Party of 1917 was animated by Wilsonian liberalism, a militant internationalism of the left. These same liberals, however, were cruelly disillusioned by vengeance of Versailles and the subsequent redivision of Europe by the Great Powers. This great betrayal gave rise to a new, noninterventionist liberalism, which found political expression in the Midwestern populists of both parties (but primarily the Republicans).”

The War Party loves historical analogies, and their favorite is World War II: remember how Saddam was supposedly a Middle Eastern Hitler? Now Iran is playing the same role. The neocons, with their Churchillian pretensions, like to pretend it is 1938 all over again: any negotiation is a reenactment of Munich, and the goal is nothing less than unconditional surrender. Norman Podhoretz and Eliot Cohen say we are fighting World War IV.

The absurdity of equating the massive armies of the Third Reich with no more than 60,000 ragged Iraqi insurgents requires little in the way of comment. Add to this the uncertain resources of various stateless actors, such as al-Qaeda and allied networks, and still you have nothing that remotely resembles the Wehrmacht.

There is, however, some validity to the neocons’ analogy, in that, once again, a war is the defining issue and our politics are undergoing a seismic shift. As I pointed out in my speech, the progressive Republicans of the 1930s, exemplified by Sen. William E. Borah, the “Lion of Idaho,” were initially friendly to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but turned against him because of the quasi-totalitarian National Recovery Act, the court-packing scheme, and his persistent efforts to get us into the European war.

Today another Midwestern Republican is arising as the voice of the antiwar opposition, and on much the same basis as the Old Right opposed the more radical aspects of the New Deal and Roosevelt’s rush to war. “This is not a monarchy,” declared Hagel at the recent Senate debate over the anti-“surge” resolution. He might have been channeling the voice of Sen. Robert A. Taft, who warned that Franklin Roosevelt’s war measures would make him “a complete dictator over the lives and property of all our citizens.”

Hagel’s own rise as the champion of the antiwar conservatives – due to this, this, this, and especially this – is the harbinger of the coming realignment. The issue of the Iraq war – and the question of whether imperialism is the proper foreign policy for a constitutional republic – is fast redrawing the political map and rearranging the political spectrum in ways that defy the traditional concepts of “Left” and “Right.” (There’s a very interesting book, Eight Ways to Run the Country, by Investor’s Business Daily Washington bureau chief Brian Patrick Mitchell, that charts this transformation of the political culture in a novel manner, and I recommend it highly.)

Just as the Midwestern Republican progressives such as Borah opposed the National Recovery Act, so Hagel and a growing number of conservative and libertarian Republicans oppose the PATRIOT Act and the rise of the surveillance state. In his GQ interview, Hagel replicates not only the positions but also the essentially libertarian sensibility of the Old Right in its opposition to authoritarianism, centralism, and war:

“We have always been able to protect national security without sacrificing the liberties of the individual. Once you lose those rights, it’s very hard to get them back. There have been arguments made that if we just give up a few rights, it will be easier to preserve our national security. That should never, ever happen. When you take office, you take an oath to protect and defend the Constitution. That is your first responsibility.”

Hagel’s analysis of the “surge” – and, by implication, the entire Iraqi project – is sheer incredulity. He’s asked if the 20,000 or so troops being sent will be enough to “secure Baghdad,” and you can almost hear his bitter laugh:

“It’s not ours to secure. We have never understood that! We have framed this in a way that never made sense: ‘Win or lose in Iraq.’ Wait a minute! There is no win or loss for us. The Iraqis will determine how this turns out. We can help them with our blood and our treasure and our standing, but in the end they have to deal with the sectarian problems. That is what’s consuming that country. It’s not al-Qaeda. It’s not the terrorists. That’s not the main problem over there. It’s a civil war!”

Hagel is not alone in his sentiments. With the defection of Sen. John Warner, the GOP’s big gun on defense and foreign policy-related matters, the administration suffered a huge blow: now only the dyed-in-the wool neocons and a few remaining Bush loyalists are manning the fortress. With Hagel considering a presidential run and the GOP’s old guard raising the banner of their Iraq Study Group manifesto, the War Party is besieged from all sides. The battle for the soul of the Republican Party, and the conservative movement, has begun.

On one side stands John McCain, the neocons – and, in their millions, the Christian evangelical premillennial dispensationalists, who see Iran’s bid to join the nuclear club as a sign of the final days. Standing against this axis of faith-based aggression, we have Chuck Hagel, in his own words:

“We are living through one of the most transformative periods in history. If we are going to make it, we need a far greater appreciation and respect for others, or we’re going to blow up mankind. Look at what zealotry can do. Religious zealotry has been responsible for killing more people than any other thing. Look at the Middle East today. It’s all about religion. We need to move past those divisions and learn to be tolerant and respectful. If we go out there full of intolerance and hatred, we’ll never make it.”

This determinedly secular voice is tempered by a social conservatism – or, rather, an old-fashioned “don’t scare the horses” sensibility – which disapproves of gay marriage, but would leave it to the states, and flat out opposes drug legalization. (A sectarian footnote: This latter is a disqualifying act for some alleged “libertarians.” How does one explain a monomania that gives more weight to defending the right to sell crystal meth than to stopping a senseless and criminal mass murder? It can’t be explained, at least not in political-ideological terms.)

The Republican Party is floundering, and local Republican activists are at their wit’s end: one more election like the last one, and they will be reduced to being a regional, Southern-based party. Hagel is giving voice to the long-buried resentments of grassroots party activists and especially local office holders, who have suffered in silence for too long. What’s more, Hagel’s personal resumé – war hero, tough guy, old-fashioned conservative – adds up to a formidable persona, the subject of a narrative that could give Hagel a good shot at the White House.

That’s why the neocon slime machine is already gunning for him. First up, the king of snark, Mickey Kaus of Slate.com, who sniffs:

“Why, exactly, is Sen. Chuck Hagel showing ‘courage‘ in conspicuously denouncing the Iraq War now that virtually the entire American establishment has reached that same conclusion – now that Hagel is virtually assured of getting hero treatment from Brian Williams and Tim Russert and long favorable profiles in the newsweeklies?”

Hagel, says Kaus, “chose this moment to make his flamboyant speech” out of sheer opportunism: now that the war is unpopular, it’s safe to come out of the closet, so to speak. Except that Hagel has been making essentially the same speech since the summer of 2005, publicly regretting his vote for the war and saying it “could be worse than Vietnam.”

Kaus also haughtily disdains as “unpersuasive” Hagel’s supposed argument that those who haven’t served their country in uniform are disqualified from the foreign policy debate – except that the senator never made such an argument. Instead, Hagel said that we need “a policy worthy of our military” – not one that is content to grind them up and spit them out in the neocons’ endless wars. Hagel doesn’t question the moral standing of those with no military experience who push for war: he just doesn’t believe they have a full understanding of what they’re getting us into. There is, he points out, a good reason why the generals opposed this war and the hawks with no military experience – our laptop bombardiers – were so quick to call for the “liberation” of Iraq and so shrill in their denunciations of anyone who questioned the wisdom of such a course. They weren’t persuasive then, and they are even less so now, while Hagel, on the other hand, carries with him the authority of one who has been there.

Hagel’s military experience is precisely what accounts for his horror at this administration’s recklessness. I was particularly struck, in the GQ interview, by his description of how the original war resolution read:

“Finally, begrudgingly, they sent over a resolution for Congress to approve. Well, it was astounding. It said they could go anywhere in the region.

“It wasn’t specific to Iraq?

“Oh no. It said the whole region! They could go into Greece or anywhere. I mean, is Central Asia in the region? I suppose! Sure as hell it was clear they meant the whole Middle East. It was anything they wanted. It was literally anything. No boundaries. No restrictions.

“They expected Congress to let them start a war anywhere they wanted in the Middle East?

“Yes. Yes. Wide open. We had to rewrite it. Joe Biden, Dick Lugar, and I stripped the language that the White House had set up, and put our language in it.”

In his dramatic confrontation with Condi, Hagel looks her straight in the eye and says you can’t sit there and tell us that there won’t be an incursion into Iran; some of us remember Cambodia, Madam Secretary. She just glares at him, with those stone-cold Village of the Damned eyes, looking more than ever like a poisonous snake.

Hagel, more than any other viable candidate for president, is acutely aware of the dangers posed by our present policy of relentless, ever escalating war in the Middle East. At such times, if we are lucky, men of his caliber arise to save the nation from the folly of its leaders.

The nation sorely needs new leadership, and who can dispute that the GOP is dying for lack of it? The neocons have nearly destroyed the good name of conservatism in pursuit of a revolutionary “Jacobin” policy, both at home and abroad. The conventional wisdom has it that the GOP rank-and-file will never countenance Hagel’s fierce criticism of the president and the war, but the reality is that he is giving voice to their fears of political extinction and their dawning realization that the war was a hoax and a fool’s errand from the beginning.

Hagel – in your heart, you know he’s right. Now there‘s a catchy campaign slogan if I ever heard one. Perhaps it will work a lot better the second time around.

The Old Right is back, and in Hagel it has, perhaps, found a formidable and eminently electable candidate. Which means that the smear brigade should be going into high gear pretty soon – I’d give them a week or so. Get ready for the unfounded allegations, the accusations of “racism” or some other forbidden “ism,” and of course we’ll have the obligatory effort to throw doubt on his war record.

It won’t work. Hagel has the gravitas of an Eisenhower or a MacArthur, and, if he enters the race, he has the capacity to rise above that. No wonder he has excited the hatred of Dick Cheney. Hagel represents a real threat to the hegemony of the neocons, especially if he earns the fealty of the Republican old guard and the Iraq Study Group crowd.

I have long believed that once the War Party loses its grip on the Republicans, it is finished as a viable political force, at least for the foreseeable future. If Hagel wins the nomination, I may yet live to see the War Party in its death throes. And that, my friends, is all I ask…

Postscript: I can hardly wait to hear the groans and squeals of the “antiwar” Left, or at least a vocal and intensely partisan faction of it that will denounce Hagel as “reactionary” and unacceptable. Some people will prefer a pro-war Democrat like Hillary Clinton, who denounces the Bush White House for supposedly being too soft on Iran, to an antiwar Republican such as Hagel, who so clearly sees the danger of this war spreading beyond the borders of Iraq.

Read more by Justin Raimondo