A recent poll showed most Americans didn’t know enough about Chuck Hagel to have an opinion on his confirmation as Secretary of Defense. You’d never know that, however, with all the drama emanating from Washington on the subject. So did all that sound and fury signify nothing?
What seems like an inside-baseball brouhaha actually maps a seismic shift in the way Americans think about war, American foreign policy, and the peculiarities of our "special relationship" with Israel.
War – Here was a contest in which the contrast between the combatants could not have been starker. On one side: Hagel – who volunteered to be sent to Vietnam, was awarded two Purple Hearts, and spent a good part of his public service career fighting for veterans of that criminal war. On the other side: Sen. Lindsey Graham, who joined the Air Force and claimed to be a "Gulf war veteran," and yet never saw a micro-second of combat – or even left the US, for that matter.
If Hagel represents the odyssey of those straight-and-true patriots whose disillusion taught them to be skeptical of the uses of American power, then Sen. Huckleberry Closet-case symbolizes the archetypal chicken-hawk whose unchallenged illusions have led to the misuse of that power.
These two types are natural enemies: the realist and the fantasist. The former gains knowledge via experience, while the latter reinforces his ignorance by keeping his distance from gritty reality. Hagel’s enemies, almost to a man, are poseurs: that is, they limn the mannerisms and mindset of the warrior, but the performance turns into parody because they lack any sense of the tragic. At one point during the long Senate confirmation process, one of Hagel’s more persistent critics objected to his characterization of the Iraq war as a "meat-grinder." What planet are these people living on?
So do only battle-scarred vets have the right to speak up on matters of war and peace? No one said that: but when one battle-scarred vet rises to question the cavalier manner in which American soldiers are routinely sent into ill-advised wars, we ought to shut up and listen. And we ought not to be implying that they’re traitors, or that they’re on the payroll of North Korea, Iran, and the Devil himself.
One neocon of note even argued that Hagel’s experience in the military was a disadvantage, because his first-hand knowledge of the horrors of war would make him unreasonably averse to ordering troops into combat. Better to put a chicken-hawk in as SecDef – one who will have no trouble sleeping at night after sending our young men and women to their deaths in the name of avenging the defeat of "a band of reluctant conscripts," as laptop bombardier Eliot Cohen described the Vietnam generation of wounded warriors.
Which brings us to a larger question:
American foreign policy – Thanks to the neocons, who pulled out all the stops, the battle over Hagel’s confirmation was fought over the central issues facing American policymakers, first and foremost our stance toward Iran.
The drum beat for war with Tehran began way back in the darkest days of the Bush administration, and the same crowd has kept pounding away at their tom-toms ever since, getting louder and more insistent by the day. Yet Bush ultimately backed away from that particular abyss, defying Dick Cheney and his pet neocons, who then had to pursue their goal in opposition. With the election of Barack Obama, however, the country had already turned the page.
As the war hysteria of the Bush years became an ever-dimmer memory, the charge of "appeaser!" – thrown at Hagel for expressing a desire to engage Tehran – no longer had the force of a cattle-prod. Indeed, next to the hysterics of someone like Ted Cruz or Jim Inhofe, instead of discrediting Hagel it made him seem relatively reasonable. In opposing Hagel on these grounds, the neocons and their senatorial camarilla meant to reestablish a litmus test that had long since passed its expiration date – and they failed miserably.
The two words that were repeated most in the Senate confirmation hearings were Iran, and Israel – with the latter beating out the former by a good margin. Which brings us to the third big issue the Hagel battle impacted:
America’s "special relationship" with Israel – "Send us Hagel, and we’ll make sure every American knows he’s an anti-Semite," said one Senate aide to the Weekly Standard, as the battle commenced. For many years, any and all criticism of the Jewish state has been relegated to the fever-swamps: if you dared call Israel an "apartheid state," or tending toward that status, you were automatically reviled as an acolyte of David Duke, or worse. Yet, according to his critics, at least, Hagel did just that – and is now our Secretary of Defense. There goes another litmus test down the tubes!
More importantly, anyone who pointed to the powerful Israel lobby as a decisive force in the making of American foreign policy was similarly and routinely smeared as an anti-Jewish bigot. Yet Hagel has done precisely that – and, hey lookee lookee, he’s in the Pentagon drivers’ seat!
Israel’s American lobby has done much to weave a mystique of invincibility around itself, but this was always an illusion: now that spell has been broken, and, from this point on, their road will be a lot harder. Hagel was right to say the Israel lobby rules by intimidation, and his victory means their bullying will matter a lot less from now on.
Dan McCarthy, writing in The American Conservative, trenchantly observed:
"AIPAC itself did not take up the fight against Hagel; this was specifically the fight of the right wing of the Israel Lobby. Until now, the core lobby has mostly faced trouble on its left, from groups like J Street and people like Peter Beinart. Now it has a right-wing problem as well, from "ultras" who don’t accept that core lobby’s line that Israel policy should be bipartisan and who have tightly entwined themselves with GOP. What Adelson and Kristol and their friends in the Senate have done is to make Israel a more partisan issue than it has been hitherto – and what’s worse, the party the ultras have aligned with is the one that looks set to be out of power for some time to come."
For those who have longed for the liberation of American foreign policy from the iron heel of the Israel Firsters, the split in the Lobby is good news indeed. And while the disagreement is (so far) over strategy and tactics, rather than some substantive policy difference, it still works to the advantage of those who want a foreign policy that puts America first, second, and third.
The Israel lobby has long denied its very existence: indeed, anyone who pointed it out, such as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, was subjected to potentially career-destroying vilification. Accused Israeli spy Steve Rosen, former top AIPAC official, was right when he compared the lobby to a night flower that blooms only in the dark. However, now that exotic blossom has been hauled out into the light – and we can sit back and watch it wilt under scrutiny.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
I will be the keynote speaker at the Republican Liberty Caucus of California convention, this coming Saturday, March 2, in Sacramento. The event will take place at the Sacramento Convention Center, Room 204, (address:1400 J Street: the convention center is adjacent to the Hyatt Regency). I am scheduled to be introduced at 2:10, to speak from 2:15 to 2:45, and to take questions from 2:45 to 3:00.
I’m on Twitter quite a bit these days, and having a lot of fun: indeed, I’m almost up to 3,000 "followers"! Help me cross the 3000 mark by following me here.
I’ve also written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Forward by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).