The Hagel Battle:
‘Why is Obama Doing This?’
A cultural revolution in the foreign policy debate
You might think that China’s political system is in no way comparable to our own – and further, you might not be blamed for thinking that the 1973 Chinese Communist propaganda campaign, "Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius," has zero to do with the current campaign to impugn the views and character of Chuck Hagel – but you would be wrong on both counts.
One-party states are supposed to be monolithic, and indeed this is the impression their rulers would like to give, both to the outside world and to any potential internal critics who might dare raise their heads. Yet it is very far from the truth, although to what degree is highly variable. For my purposes here, China is a perfect example of how political struggle takes places in a totalitarian society: there, to all outward appearances, we have the mighty Communist Party lording it over a nation of over a billion persons, all marching in lockstep into the Great Proletarian "Socialism-with-Chinese-characteristics" Future – except, not really, as the recent purge of Bo Xilai and his supporters showed.
Beneath the surface of unanimity, it’s hardball politics all the way, and this has been true almost from the founding of the People’s Republic. The most dramatic departure from the monolithic model was, of course, the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which nearly resulted in a civil war and brought the entire country to a complete standstill. This cataclysm was initiated by Chairman Mao himself, and while ostensibly a campaign to "learn from the Little Red Book," and further elevate the cult of Mao, it was in reality an effort to root out his enemies in the Communist Party. "You’re building a socialist revolution," Mao complained to his idolators, "but you don’t even know where the capitalists are. They are inside the Communist Party." A prescient prognostication in light of developments after his death — but I digress.
Since China is a one party state, Mao could not go after his enemies in the Party by forming a rival party, so he launched the Cultural Revolution, appealing to the young people of China over the heads of the party leaders. Young Chinese responded in their millions, leaving their schools and going out into the streets to agitate against the "ghosts and monsters" of China’s feudal past and drag out "capitalist roaders" from their comfortable party offices. This set the stage for a decade or so of fierce political fights between the "right" and the "left" in China: the latter represented by Mao’s tumultuous wife, Jiang Qing, and the former by the eventual victor, "rightist" Deng Hsiaoping.
This battle was fought, not in the streets, for the most part – although, toward the end, there were some shots fired – but in the Party’s propaganda organs, and via the ubiquitous wall posters that were a common sight during those years. With the announcement of each new Party-approved propaganda campaign, left and right took advantage of the occasion to go after each other hammer and tongs, and a whole series of pitched ideological battles ensued. There was the "Destruction of the Four Olds," a leftist initiative which resulted in the mass destruction of priceless Chinese artifacts and the systematic persecution of intellectuals as inherently "bourgeois"; the "Down to the Countryside Movement," a "rightist" counteroffensive in which students were sent to rural areas in order to "learn from the peasants" (this was Mao’s way of getting rid of the Red Guards, who had become a threat to the authority of the Party); the campaign to "Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius," in which the left utilized allusions to ancient Chinese history to target not only the disgraced Lin Biao but also Zhou Enlai, a powerful figure.
Long story short: the left was eventually defeated, and its leaders arrested, after Mao’s death, but not before putting up fierce resistance to the end. This last gasp of the Red Guards was occasioned by the campaign imaginatively labeled "Repulse the Right Deviationist Wind," which the so-called Gang of Four, led by Madame Mao, used to attack Deng, China’s future Maximum Leader.
Invoking sophisticated historical and literary allusions, and applying them to current events, both left and right waged a years-long bitter battle for control of China’s fate: the Party, rather than directing the struggle, was the arena in which the various factions fought, and their struggle was every bit as fierce as an American election campaign, indeed much more so.
Naturally, American politics is very different from the Chinese variety – but, in certain areas, the difference is quantitative rather than qualitative. Structurally, we have two supposedly separate rival parties, the Democrats and Republicans, who enjoy legal advantages over "third party" challengers as well as the benefits of habituation. Furthermore, the ideological differences between the two major parties are largely confined to the domestic arena: Republicans tend to be against what they describe as "big government," while their Democratic rivals tend to be for increased government involvement in the private sector.
However, in the foreign policy realm, the two parties – as represented by their votes in Congress, for example – tend to converge. Indeed, there is often no or very little daylight between them when it comes to substantive issues, like whether Iran represents an imminent danger to US national interests, or what our relationship with the state of Israel ought to be. When it comes to foreign policy, what we have, in effect, is a single party system. When the War Party picks a target – as they did in the first decade of this century in Iraq – dissent is disdained, albeit not (quite) illegal, and the bounds of permissible debate are very narrowly drawn. As a general rule, the parameters of "mainstream" debate range from ultra-hawkish neoconservatives on the right to liberal "internationalist" interventionists on the "left." Both Noam Chomsky and Ron Paul are excluded.
There are, however, some strong indications that this bipartisan interventionist consensus is falling apart. With the introduction of austerity budgets worldwide, both in the public and private spheres, and the need to contract the American Empire to some more manageable size, a debate has opened up in elite foreign policy circles over how to deal with this downsizing.
The neocons, on the one hand, refuse to acknowledge any such downsizing is necessary, and so we are treated to the spectacle of alleged "conservatives" such as Bill Kristol and the born-again "moderate Republican" David Frum hailing coming tax hikes. After all, better that Grandma’s Social Security payments be reduced to subsistence levels than have Lockheed Martin’s’s stock take a nose dive. Indeed, the neocon-led presidential campaign of Mitt Romney made a big point of calling for economically impossible increases in the military budget, decrying Obama’s call for "cuts" (actually, cuts in projected increases) as evidence of "weakness."
On the other hand, the Obama administration, driven more by the economics of budget constraints than ideology or natural inclination, is faced with the necessity of downsizing our military footprint throughout the world – and cutting a military budget that has more than doubled since 9/11. Politics is also driving this downsizing campaign: the Obamaites, ever-sensitive to the changing moods of the electorate, seem to have discovered that these constant wars and sky-high military spending binges are highly unpopular with the poor ignorant peons who have the misfortune to live outside the Washington Beltway. Normally these serfs exist only to pay taxes, and – after voting the straight party ticket – are steadfastly ignored. However, David Axelrod seems to have noticed that large numbers of them have been grousing of late about all the money and attention lavished on what’s happening on the other side of the world – at a time when Americans are being foreclosed on right down the street.
The other day, I saw Robert Reich on "This Week" bemoaning the appointment of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, looking genuinely baffled: "With all of the fights the President has coming up, why is he doing this?"
The answer is: politics, economics, and – most importantly – the Obama Legacy.
The political and economic factors have been analyzed to death by the commentariat, but the Legacy Factor has been left out of the mix – and it is probably the major driver behind this appointment.
While Obama loyalists like Reich aren’t seeing the forest for the trees, the anti-Hagel neocon smear brigade is a bit more perceptive. The thrust of their contemptible campaign of calumny, which is supposed to "prove" Hagel is an anti-Semite, is that he is not only insufficiently loyal but also actively hostile to Israel. The "evidence"? He refused to sign on to various congressional resolutions and "open letters" circulated by the Israel Firsters, and this, along with an off-the-cuff remark about the "Jewish lobby," has been the fulcrum in which the neocons have cooked up numerous slanders.
In the consensus-driven world of foreign policy and defense, battles over presidential cabinet appointments are rare, and even more rarely revolve around policy issues: John Tower failed to be confirmed for other reasons. By making the Israel issue – the "third rail" in our foreign policy discourse – paramount, the "Criticize Hagel, Criticize Obama" propaganda campaign launched by the neocons set a remarkable precedent, one that will, I believe – and hope – prove their undoing.
The neocon hate campaign gave the Obamaites precisely the opportunity they were looking for, and they took it by ignoring the pre-nomination brouhaha and naming Hagel anyway. This crossed an important line, one that hasn’t been breached in many years, in that it put the issue of our "special relationship" with Israel at the center of a vigorous and very public debate.
This had never happened before. The issue of Israel was always considered beyond debate, the most recent example of this uniformity of opinion being the last presidential debate between Obama and Romney in which the candidates spent a great deal of time competing with each other to see who could be more effusive in their undying support for the Jewish state.
The Republicans, however, outdid themselves in this regard. Romney even made a big deal about how Obama had gone to the region without visiting Israel – as if the President of the United States was some minor vassal obliged to pay homage to Tel Aviv. Netanyahu, for his part, made no secret of his preference for the Republican candidate, and GOP strategists put his implicit support to use: sound bites of his American media appearances, in which he criticized the US for its supposed lack of attention to Tel Aviv’s concerns, served as material for Romney’s campaign ads directed at Florida’s Jewish population and fundamentalist Christians.
After the election, the neocons over-reached once again on the Israel issue by making it the centerpiece of their anti-Hagel campaign. This ploy was meant to distract attention away from the real issue, which is the necessity of downsizing military spending and reducing America’s global footprint, and at first it seemed to be succeeding. However, the backlash soon set in: the sheer viciousness of the charges – that Hagel is a secret anti-Semite, and therefore has a "special animus" toward Israel – led many to question whether the calm, statesman-like Hagel was really a raving Hitler clone. In particular, the "evidence" of his alleged anti-Semitism incriminated his accusers as fanatics: saying "I’m an American senator, not an Israeli senator" when asked why he didn’t join Netanyahu and the Lobby in calling for war with Iran is evidence of common sense, not "anti-Semitism." Faced with this "proof" of Hagel’s allegedly Hitleresque worldview, any normal American would look askance at Hagel’s accusers. In the Washington Beltway, however, putting America first, and Israel second, is a mortal sin – or, at least, it was until now.
In Mao’s China, when the ultra-leftist "Gang of Four" launched their campaign to "cleanse" the Party of "bourgeois elements," they took the campaign to "Criticize Lin Biao, Criticize Confucius" to such ridiculous lengths that they caused a backlash, with even Mao rebuking them. This was their style: a vehemently ideological fanaticism that reduced everything to the Gang’s monochromatic "proletarian" view of life, which zealously sought to crush any and all opposition underfoot – and they did it again and again, always with the same result. While initially successful, they always over-reached and wound up being pushed back – and, in 1976, ultimately destroyed,when they were arrested by the post-Mao leadership and jailed for life.
In Obama’s America, when the ultra-neocon "Emergency Committee for Israel" launched their propaganda offensive to cleanse the body politic of Hagelian revisionism, they took their campaign to "Criticize Hagel, Criticize Obama" to such ridiculously vicious lengths that they inspired a vigorous pushback from the sort of people who had put up with their nonsense for too long: grizzled veterans of the diplomatic, political, and military corps who had sat in silence during the Bush years as the neocons played havoc with the country’s foreign policy.
In foreign policy terms, those years witnessed the American equivalent of a Great Neocon Cultural Revolution, in which the culture of a militaristic hubris gripped Washington and drove us – heedless of the consequences – to invade two large Middle Eastern countries while threatening a third. The leaders of that revolution – the same neocon ideologues who are now slandering Hagel – seemingly got away scot free and blame-free after those disastrous wars. However, like China’s arrogant "Gang of Four" – they insisted on over-playing their hand, and launched a campaign to discredit and smear anyone – like Hagel – who had opposed their war plans early on.
Their anti-Hagel campaign is failing, bigtime. The "anti-Semite" charge is so transparently bogus that it has discredited Hagel’s accusers: their attempt to manipulate the precious sensitivities of various victim groups, from gays to women to Armenians, is so transparently opportunistic that it exposes their cynical viciousness for all to see. Like the Gang of Four, they will end up on in the dust-bin of history – and never was a fate more deserved. While Jiang Qing committed suicide, Bill Kristol, having committed political suicide, is unlikely to follow suit – although you never know.
In the one-party state of the foreign policy community, where previously the room to maneuver for those who oppose US intervention has been strictly limited, what we are now experiencing is a period of glasnost where the parameters of the permissible are being widened beyond our wildest dreams. The objective conditions – economic downturn, and the subsequent trend toward retrenchment – are combining with the subjective conditions (the neocons’ overplaying their hand) to create a perfect storm of opportunity for anti-interventionists. For the Campaign to Criticize Hagel is giving way to a Campaign to Criticize Bill Kristol and Beat Back the Rightist Wind – and boy oh boy, I can hardly wait for the fun to begin!
Because what this means is that the neocons, and not Hagel, are going to be put on trial. Their political tools, Lindsay Graham and John McCain, will be made to look ridiculous as they try to take on the first enlisted man to be nominated for Defense Secretary, a war hero with two Purple Hearts and a no-nonsense mien. Major Jewish organizations are backing down, left and right, withdrawing from what at first appeared to be a united front against Hagel: the Anti-Defamation League issued a mild statement, basically saying they wouldn’t oppose Hagel but still have "concerns." Others followed suit. Barney Frank, the Great Pink Hope of the "Hagel-hates-show-tunes" crowd, reversed his anti-Hagel stance less than 24 hours after announcing it: he apparently found the prospect of being in bed with Bill Kristol distasteful enough to make him change his mind. I’m not sure if the Armenians have backed down, as yet, but I’ll report new defections as they occur.
As for the Legacy Factor: remember that this is Obama’s second and hopefully last term. He has four years to build his Legacy – some world-historical accomplishment his hagiographers can point to and say "That was a great man!" What does he have so far? Well, not much, unless you consider wrecking the country’s economy a great achievement, which I do not. The domestic economic situation is not going to improve much over the next four years, and I think the President knows that this will be an uphill battle. So where does that leave his Legacy?
Most Presidents move on the foreign policy front in their second terms, and this one will be no exception. And where this President is likely to make his move is where two of his Democratic predecessors tried – and failed – to make their respective marks, and that is in finally forging a lasting peace accord in the Middle East.
In spite of all the "I have Israel’s back" rhetoric, the President no doubt recognizes what any objective observer of the region has to acknowledge: that the expansionist designs of the current Israeli government are the main obstacle to regional peace and stability. Stubbornly defying the US on the settlements issue, and now openly considering annexing much of the West Bank, the Israelis don’t want an accord: they want a Greater Israel.
Up until now, the President has had both hands tied behind his back when it comes to this issue: facing pressure not only from the far right but also from within his own party, he hasn’t dared cross the Israelis. With the election over, and with the Israelis moving rapidly into a suicidal ultra-nationalism, Obama can now make his move – and the Hagel appointment is his opening shot.
Before he can formulate a workable peace plan, one that is acceptable not only to the Palestinians but to an increasingly pro-Palestinian world audience, he must first break the power of the Israel lobby on the home front. Their over-reaching has made them vulnerable, and their inability to block the Hagel nomination is going to unleash a series of developments that would have been unthinkable but a few months ago.
Whether Obama will achieve his goal, and cement his Legacy firmly in place, remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: the neocons and the Israel lobby are being handed a big defeat, and their dominance in the foreign policy field is ended – and for that we have not only Hagel, but this President, to thank. Not that he did it on purpose, or on principle: not that he’s an anti-interventionist (he clearly isn’t): but sometimes History thrusts the most unlikely tasks on the most unlikely people, and this is one of those times.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
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