Hagel Against the War Party

Chuck Hagel, wrote one editorialist, is "a man whose time has come," and today – if, as expected, he announces his candidacy for the White House – is a day that will transform the debate over the war and bridge the partisan divide that does so much to ensure that our irrational foreign policy continues merrily – and disastrously – on its way.

While the Republican senator from Nebraska voted to authorize the war, he did so even while criticizing the move, and because he thought he could trust the president to make the right decision. That he and a surprising number of potential Republican primary voters have been sorely disappointed in that hope may prove the War Party‘s ultimate undoing. For regardless of whether Hagel makes it all the way to the Republican convention, never mind the White House, his candidacy will break an important taboo – and, in the process, open up the debate over the war in a way that could be fatal to the neoconservatives who authored the invasion and still defend it.

A Hagel candidacy will deliver three mighty body blows against the War Party – perhaps with enough force to break their death grip on the GOP and send them back to academia and the Scoop Jackson wing of the Democratic Party.

First, Hagel will seriously challenge the neoconservative dominance of foreign policy discussion on the Right. Yes, sure, there is a lot of dissent within the conservative movement when it comes to Iraq – why else did the editors of National Review take the trouble to read antiwar conservatives (including this writer) out of the movement? It is the neocons, however, who are on the run these days, what with all the recantations, and if anyone is going to be excommunicated from the conservative movement it isn’t going to be Pat Buchanan. The problem is that conservative qualms over a foreign policy that openly [.pdf] seeks to establish an American Empire have not been expressed by reasonably well-known Republican politicians. The peace party on the Right has a fully articulated platform and a literary presence, but no candidate. With the entry of Hagel into the race, that position is now filled. It’s great to read all those wonderful articles in, say, The American Conservative, decrying the tragic hubris of ostensible conservatives pursuing a foreign policy conceived by Jacobins, as Professor Claes Ryn describes the neocons. But now it’s time for a little action, and with Hagel in the race, we are going to see plenty of it.

Secondly, the Hagel candidacy demolishes the prohibition against criticism of the war from major figures within the president’s own party and paves the way for a torrent of pent-up frustration, anger, and growing despair among grassroots Republicans who see their party being wrecked by a cabal of schemers, dreamers, and increasingly discredited liars. The president’s plummeting poll numbers track the public’s growing opposition to the war and its rising anger at Bush’s defiant "surge," which makes about as much sense politically as it does militarily. Republicans who fear a rerun of the recent congressional election defeat coming at them in ’08 are getting sick and tired of defending the creepy Dick Cheney and a convicted felon. With the campaign to "Free Scooter Libby!" in high gear, it is clear that the neocons would rather reduce the GOP to near extinction rather than concede a single inch. Like a parasite that eventually kills its host, the War Party is not all that concerned about the fate of a given political party, since they can operate quite comfortably in either.

Most importantly, the Hagel campaign will legitimize anti-interventionist arguments and inject them into the national conversation in a way that will destroy the whole red/blue, partisan political dichotomy that keeps the War Party in the saddle. By characterizing all opposition to our foreign policy of relentless aggression as a partisan ploy – the work of Bush-hating left-wing Democrats – war-supporters have not only shored up their (shrinking) base, they’ve effectively neutralized the opposition. For the war hero, with his gruff no-nonsense voice and his quintessentially Republican resume – no one in the Senate voted with the White House more than Hagel – to stand up and speak out against the war in such uncompromising and combative terms smashes that stereotype for good.

Hagel insists he’s not an "antiwar" candidate, but this is precisely what I mean about the effective stereotyping of all opposition to the neocons’ foreign policy: critiques of the war not steeped in either pacifism or blame-America-first leftism are simply inconceivable. What Hagel doesn’t seem to understand, quite yet, is that his campaign will do much to erase the red/blue paradigm at a time when it is doing the most damage possible. But that’s okay: historic figures almost never comprehend the impact or larger meaning of their actions, except in retrospect. That’s why we have political analysts and pundits.

The conventional (Republican) wisdom is to discount Hagel’s organizational and financial capabilities and point to his low poll numbers (he’s currently at 1 percent). Longtime conservative Republican political consultant Charles Black avers:

"Hagel has a strong conservative record and great campaign skills, and if he could raise money, he could be a serious competitor. But his opposition to the president on the Iraq war would deny him access to the great majority of primary voters. Most of them support Bush on Iraq."

Black is just wrong on the numbers: according to a CBS News-New York Times poll taken at the end of February, 44 percent of Republicans disapprove of the way President Bush is handling the Iraq war. If we deduct the five or so percent who disapprove because they want a bigger "surge," then we still come up with a sizable constituency, one naturally inclined to support Hagel. With so many other candidates in the race – and nearly all of them afflicted with some personal, theological, or ideological disfigurement that makes them unacceptable to "movement" conservatives – Hagel could win the Republican nomination with a plurality in a divided field.

McCain is imploding a full year before the first primary. Romney, the Stepford candidate of the "official" conservative movement, is such an obvious phony that, having been thoroughly ridiculed into complete political impotence, he won’t make it past the first few primaries. Giuliani’s closet is so full of skeletons that the sound of them rattling will drown out his promise to make the trains run on time. Hagel, on the other hand, has none of these disabilities, and one very big advantage.

Wars always transform the political landscape: Left and Right shift and switch positions, while the establishment is shaken to its core. In this era of perpetual war, the changes promise to be seismic – and the Hagel candidacy, if it materializes, augurs a new age of political tumult not unlike the 1960s in its intensity, but altogether different in content, tone, and essential character. In the Sixties, the protest candidates were left-wing Democrats who appealed to American youth and became symbols of opposition to the Vietnam war. Even as the Democrats engage in open competition to see which presidential candidate can be most antiwar – while remaining hawkish on Iran – the sight of a Republican standing up to defy the administration on Iraq and Iran captures the imagination like no other aspirant in either party.

Whether this is enough to capture the White House – well, of course, it isn’t. What’s needed is money, and plenty of it, and you can bet the pro-war moneybags won’t be contributing a cent to his campaign. But the military-industrial-governmental complex doesn’t monopolize the funding of GOP candidates, and if Hagel runs, he’ll attract a much larger following than anyone imagines. The donors will follow.

Those polls don’t mean a thing so early on, and this is especially true in Hagel’s case: after all, how many Americans outside of Nebraska (and Washington, D.C.) know his name? But if he follows through on his promise, he will be very well-known before the Republicans gather in convention to nominate their standard-bearer, and not only because of his views on the war, or because he’s become a bit of a media darling. The man has charisma-plus: he speaks not only with conviction, but with some real understanding of foreign affairs, and, apparently, a detailed knowledge of Middle Eastern politics. Add to this his exemplary military experience – a record matched only by McCain – and it looks like we have a potential winner in Hagel.

I am well aware of the criticisms of Hagel from a libertarian, noninterventionist perspective. Yes, I do realize he voted for the Military Commissions Act [.pdf], a bit of legislation that may have marked the end of constitutional government in America, but this objection merely underscores my point: that the present state of emergency requires the broadest possible movement in response to the threat posed by rampant militarism at home and abroad.

And, yes, I realize he’s not a consistent noninterventionist: again, this merely makes my point. Under the circumstances, with the U.S. occupying Iraq and poised to strike at Iran – i.e., the prospect of a regional war, extending from Beirut to Baghdad to Kabul and reaching into the wilds of Central Asia – I am willing to settle for a Republican "realist" who would steer us well away from that abyss.

However, it is necessary to always raise the banner of pure noninterventionism, and for those who won’t settle, I am happy to report that Rep. Ron Paul, the onetime Libertarian Party candidate for president and longtime Republican congressman from Texas, is also in the race: in fact, he’s announcing his candidacy on the same day as Hagel, a clever ploy that will garner him more notice in the media than he might otherwise have gotten. By piggybacking on the Nebraska senator’s announcement, Ron will get mentioned in the last few paragraphs of nearly every dispatch that leads with Hagel.

Rep. Paul has been a consistent friend of liberty and a forceful advocate of a peaceful, noninterventionist foreign policy lo these many years, and, while he’s no match for Hagel in the charisma department, a more principled, heroic figure in American politics would be hard to imagine. My big concern, as a libertarian and a big fan of the man and his work, is the tremendous loss his absence in Congress will represent: we will never see his like again. His has been a much-needed voice, and the halls of Congress have echoed with Rep. Paul’s admonitions against the economic consequences of the Warfare State, the mountains of debt, the inflation-funded militarism, the loss of our republic in pursuit of the fool’s gold of empire. Without its libertarian conscience, Congress will be an even emptier vessel of the popular will than it already is.

In the long run, the resurgence of realism as the leitmotif of Republican foreign policy thinking is the most encouraging development of recent times, because it augurs a split in the War Party’s political base. It is also very good news in the short run, because it means that opposition to the next war – the one we’re preparing against Iran – may just be strong enough to stop it before it starts. Hagel showed us what he’s made of when he challenged Condi Rice –"One can’t sit here and tell us we won’t engage the Syrians or the Iranians cross-border" – and evoked Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia. This puts him way ahead of any of the Democratic presidential candidates – all of whom have rushed to declare that war with Iran is "on the table" – on the issue of war and peace.

It’s passé, at this point, to oppose the Iraq war: that adventure has long since been recognized as a tragic misadventure. What’s needed is for prominent figures, including presidential aspirants, to come out against the next war. So far, Hagel is way ahead of the pack.

Another fascinating possibility is that, having failed to save the GOP from the neocons and its own worst impulses, Hagel will run as a third-party candidate, possibly on a bipartisan ticket under the rubric of the "Unity ’08" movement. If it happens, we could see another seismic shift with long-term consequences: the breakdown of the two-party system. Another happy development, as far as I’m concerned…

In any case, as talk of a strike at Iran before the end of Bush’s term ratchets up, Hagel’s thinking is apparently evolving in ways that underscore the immediacy of the crisis. In an interview published in Esquire, he makes that plain enough:

“‘The president says, "I don’t care." He’s not accountable anymore,’ Hagel says, measuring his words by the syllable and his syllables almost by the letter. ‘He’s not accountable anymore, which isn’t totally true. You can impeach him, and before this is over, you might see calls for his impeachment. I don’t know. It depends how this goes.'”

As poor Nancy Pelosi tries to downplay all talk of impeachment, a Republican senator from Nebraska, of all places, raises the possibility, and, far from condemning it, seems to encourage it. No wonder Dick Cheney hates him.

Clearly Hagel sees the possibility of Bush starting a war with Iran as an impeachable offense: history, in any case, will impeach this president, even if Congress won’t. Hagel, however, is not content to leave this president with the judgment of history. As Ross Baker, a former adviser to Hagel, now at Rutgers University, puts it, the Nebraska Republican’s air of authority is hard-won:

“I guess if you crawl into a burning armored personnel carrier to pull your brother out, there’s not much anybody can do to you to make you feel intimidated. When you’re a rifleman, you’re the business end of American foreign policy.”

He can’t be intimidated, and he’s gunning for the War Party: he goes way beyond what any Democrat is willing to say about the foolhardiness of this administration and its foreign policy folly. He fought during the Vietnam War era and sustained life-threatening injuries, while cowards like Cheney had "other priorities," and now he’s determined to stop yet another generation of American soldiers from being sacrificed on the altar of some chickenhawk’s ambitions. Expect the War Party – on both sides of the aisle – to go after him hammer and tongs: I suspect, however, that, in Hagel, they’ve more than met their match.


I‘m speaking at a rally sponsored by Stop Funding the War, a coalition of liberal, mainline antiwar, and libertarian groups and individuals, on the steps of San Francisco’s Federal Building, noon on Monday, March 19, the fourth anniversary of the start of the Iraq war. The address is 450 Golden Gate, between Polk and Larkin. Go here for more information.

The importance of this protest, situated as it is in the shadow of the Federal Building and directly in front of Nancy Pelosi’s local office, underscores the antiwar movement’s demand that the funding for the war must be cut off. The Democrats have been reluctant to do this, except in disguised form, and it is essential to point this out. Among the speakers will be the glamorous Matt Gonzalez, former president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors and the city’s most eligible bachelor (next to Gavin Newsom, of course), and representatives from the Green Party and Veterans for Peace. I’m sure it’s going to be a lot of fun. So do come by, take a stand, and say hello.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of Antiwar.com, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].