It’s Not All About Israel
Hagel nomination battle is about interventionism vs. retrenchment
David Ignatius, writing about the furor around the rumored nomination of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, remarks that the first enlisted man to be considered for the job "has taken so much flak he deserves another Purple Heart." That about sums up the tenor of the debate Hagel’s presumed nomination has provoked. A veritable rainbow coalition of nay-sayers has coalesced in opposition: Republican strategist Dan Senor and Democratic strategist and DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas, the Log Cabin Republicans and the anti-gay Christian fundamentalists around Rev. John Hagee, Rachel Maddow and her rightwing counterparts at Fox News. (Oh, and don’t forget the Armenians!)
Meanwhile, neocon godfather-by-descent Bill Kristol is eagerly retailing the complaints of this disparate chorus in his Weekly Standard hate sheet. If these folks ever had a get-together, it would resemble the bar scene in Star Wars.
While each of these disparate voices has its own particular complaint, this curious Popular Front’s main line of attack has been the accusation that Hagel is "anti Israel."
This comes despite his many public expressions of support for the Jewish state: in particular, I would recommend people read this address to the Israel Policy Forum, wherein he reiterates his support for a two-state solution in the region. That the current Israeli government is doing its best to undermine that goal is the real reason for the Israel lobby’s concerted attack on his views and character: which is just the sort of behavior we have come to expect from those who conflate the interests of the Likud government with those of the Jewish state itself. Given the likelihood that the next Israeli government is going to be even more right-wing than the present one, this crucial distinction is increasingly apparent to many of Israel’s supporters in the U.S.
So the idea that Hagel is "anti-Israel" is a canard, as Peter Beinart and other moderate supporters of Israel have been tirelessly pointing out. Furthermore, the poisonous accusation of anti-Semitism, cavalierly leveled against Hagel in the pages of the Weekly Standard, appears to have backfired, with endorsements coming from the Jewish community as well as generating general revulsion at such a baseless, reckless charge from prominent members of the Jewish community.
Well, then, so what exactly is the problem? While the neocons might be expected to attack anyone nominated by this President, why have they gone after Hagel hammer and tongs?
The key to understanding the neocons’ game is to look at their role in the Republican party as the gatekeepers of the interventionist flame. In spite of dragging the GOP and the conservative movement down to defeat in two disastrous elections, and regardless of their responsibility for lying the US into a war that killed hundreds of thousands for no good reason, they are still the go-to guys for "Republican" or "conservative" foreign policy talking points. They still proffer their dubious advice at half a dozen respected conservative thinktanks, and their ties to what passes for the congressional Republican "leadership" on foreign policy matters are undiminished.
In short, their monopoly on foreign policy on the right side of the political spectrum is unbroken, in spite of the demonstrable and quite expensive failure of their policies when implemented. And they want to keep it that way.
Observe how they have moved to quickly quash any challenge to their hegemony in this field over the years – and the similarity of the smear campaigns that accompanied each effort. First up was Patrick J. Buchanan, whose post-cold war challenge to the internationalist bipartisan consensus was deemed a vital threat to the GOP’s precious bodily fluids. Think what you will about Pat’s politically incorrect views on cultural matters, he was the first political figure with any real visibility to throw down the gauntlet to the neocons and question, in a serious way, our foreign policy of perpetual war. His was practically a lone voice against the first invasion of Iraq, and his critique limned the arguments of those protesters who came later when George W. Bush launched "Operation Iraqi Freedom."
They called Pat every name in the book, and then some – and they doled out the same treatment to the next challenger to come along, Ron Paul. Pat was a former Cold Warrior trained in the Nixon school of international diplomacy, but Paul learned his lessons under the tutelage of the "Austrian" economists and their foremost advocate in this country, the late Murray N. Rothbard, who founded the modern libertarian movement in his living room in the 1960s. Paul’s showdown with failed presidential candidate Rudolph Giuliani during the 2008 GOP primary debate, in which Paul suggested that US foreign policy rather than the inherent evil of all Muslims might explain our problems in the Middle East, instead of dooming him to irrelevance – as the neocons brayed at the time – catapulted him to national prominence. Paul filled a niche that had, up until that point, remained empty with Buchanan’s withdrawal from politics: that of the Republican politician who talks sense about our endless overseas meddling.
And he met the same kind of frenetic smear campaign: "anti-Semite" was the least of the charges leveled against him. And now Hagel is encountering the same frenzied Two Minutes Hate.
What these three men have in common, aside from their personal integrity and refusal to be intimidated by a gang of intellectual bullies, is that they all register varying degrees of skepticism about the sustainability of the American empire – and all three are Republicans.
True, both Buchanan and Paul took the third party route at various points in their respective careers, in an effort to break the electoral roadblock that stands in the path of anyone who challenges Imperial Washington’s right to rule the world. But Paul had been elected to Congress as a Republican nearly continually throughout his long career, and Pat, as we all know, served in the Nixon administration. Hagel’s political career is that of a very conservative Republican Senator, as the "Obama must appoint a Democrat" faction has been emphasizing with gusto.
The "liberal" wing of the anti-Hagel grand coalition has been busy, too, with their own take on the prospective nominee. They’re circulating a charge sheet in Washington pointing to Hagel’s opposition to gun control, and his longstanding pro-life position, as well as his "anti-gay" history, in order to convince the MSNBC-Watchers of America that Hagel is a raving rightist.
That none of these issues have anything to do with his possible tenure as the civilian head of the Pentagon is irrelevant in terms of the current state of the national discourse, where certain cultural stances signal membership in either Team Red or Team Blue. These positions are the equivalent of religious dogma in an earlier age, and this is especially true on what passes for the "left" these days, where identity politics long ago trumped traditional ideological concerns. The charge sheet reads like an indictment issued by the Inquisition: there is naturally not a word in there about Hagel’s foreign policy views, no doubt because any reference to them might awaken whatever vague memories today’s liberals retain of their vestigial anti-interventionism.
So what are people like Rachel Maddow, the alleged leftie, doing attacking Hagel in alliance with the likes of Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard crew? They, too, have an interest in this, a political interest which dictates that conservative Republicans continue to mouth neocon-inspired nonsense as a substitute for coming up with an alternative to the effusive and occasionally militant internationalism that has marked Obama’s foreign policy up to this point. They want the "three amigos" of GOP foreign policy wisdom to continue to be the most absurdly militaristic Republicans in the Senate, John McCain and Lindsey Graham — the now retiring Joe Lieberman’s place having been taken by the harpie-ish Kelley Ayotte. Their nutty and wildly unpopular foreign policy of perpetual war is one of the big reasons why Republicans continue to lose national elections and are increasingly marginalized among the young — and the Rachel Maddows of this world want to keep things that way.
This hostility to pro-peace Republicans doesn’t extend to much of the Democratic base, however: mindless partisanship didn’t stop many progressives from endorsing and/or expressing admiration for Ron Paul and his 2012 campaign for President. An increasing number of thoughtful people on the left aren’t afraid to cross the ideological divide in order to stand up for peace.
These defections were a cause of concern for the more sectarian lefties, who denounced Paul in the same harsh terms that the neocons did. Worse, what passes for the leadership of the progressive movement in today’s America couldn’t care less about upholding the traditional anti-interventionism that energized the Vietnam era left. Instead, they have made their bargain with US imperialism, and struck a deal with the Devil in which they have traded the left’s longstanding opposition to militarism for the slow but steady expansion of the welfare state.
What Murray Rothbard called the Welfare-Warfare State is maintained in good working order by an alliance of interests, each one of which gets their "fair share" of the pie. The Pentagon budget gets its perpetual raises, and the welfare state keeps expanding, with both parties log-rolling each other’s pet projects. That the whole edifice rests on a rather flimsy foundation of IOUs is a fact of reality neither the "left" nor the "right" cares to confront.
Take the recent "fiscal cliff" drama, in which the GOP wound up voting for a tax increase. Having decided in advance that cuts to the Pentagon are impermissible, they were forced into an untenable position – opposing new revenues and yet refusing to call for any real cuts in either the military budget or so-called entitlements. The neocons, led by Kristol, supported the compromise, because anything’s better than cutting a single penny from our capacity to commit mass murder – even betraying your principles and your base.
Both the neocons and the progressive intelligentsia have a real interest in stopping the development of an anti-interventionist movement on the right: the latter because it will broaden the base of a rapidly shrinking GOP, and the former because they are ideologically committed to militarism. To those who spend their time thinking up new wars for others to fight, the mere thought of an enlisted man of the Vietnam era coming to preside over the Pentagon is their worst nightmare.
Their Hagel nightmare comes on the eve of a critical juncture in American foreign policy, as the issue of Iran takes center stage. The neocons, of course, are up in arms because Hagel disdains the "sanctions" game, preferring to engage rather than demonize Tehran. However, since the overwhelming majority of Americans agree with Hagel when it comes to his reluctance to sign on to new wars of conquest, it is necessary for the neocons to come up with other reasons to oppose him, and so we’re seeing this unusual right-left pincer movement in the campaign to demonize him.
The stakes in the Hagel nomination fight are much higher than is at first apparent, because the real issue transcends the question of our relationship to Israel, or even Iran. It’s about whether the Welfare-Warfare State is going to be allowed to bankrupt this country, both financially and morally, without encountering significant opposition from either the left or the right. It’s about whether the strategic symbiosis of neocons and "progressives" inside the Beltway is going to withstand the tides of war:
That’s why it’s vitally important that a grassroots populist movement against this sinister symbiosis arises in support of Hagel. We must defeat the neocon smear campaign, and the best way for you to do that is by signing the White House petition in support of Hagel. It’s long past time for a populist rebellion against the smear-mongers of the Beltway, and the smug Washington insiders who spread their calumnies in the dark – because rebellions, don’t you know, often lead to revolutions….
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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Buy my biography of the great libertarian thinker, An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard, here.
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- How To Judge a Political Candidate – April 21st, 2015