What the Resignation of Chuck Hagel Says About the Foreign Policy Debate in America

By now readers are likely aware that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is stepping down. He is officially resigning, but the word on the street is that President Obama asked him to leave. The administration’s spin is that he simply wasn’t up to the task, and that he never recovered from his bruising nomination battle. I am always reluctant to accept the self-serving spin that advances the narrative the administration wants forwarded. All these “anonymous sources close to the situation” appear to be falling over each other to get the president’s story out there.

That said, it is a plausible story. Just because someone was in the military and won elective office, does not mean he will be a good administrator. Hagel’s nomination always struck me as more symbolic than anything. He was a Republican and perceived to be a non-hawk. He simultaneously sent a message of reaching across the aisle and a turn toward drawback that the president welcomed.

Hagel’s defenders suggest that the move was less about competent management, and more about differences Hagel had with the president on strategy. Ironically, it is being suggested that Hagel actually favored a more robust policy than the president and his inner foreign policy circle on Syria and ISIS. This is backed up by the fact that some of Hagel’s current defenders are his former critics, such as uber-hawk Sen. John McCain. I suppose we will have to wait for the inevitable book to totally get Hagel’s side of the story.

This whole sorry episode demonstrates the sad state of what passes for a foreign policy debate in this country. It also illustrates the unfortunate tendency of some non-interventionists, presumably in the pursuit of relevance, to invest hope where little hope is warranted. The incredibly hostile reaction to Hagel’s nomination and confirmation from neoconservatives and other hawks on the “right” caused a counter-reaction in some segments of the non-interventionist coalition that was unwise. Hagel’s non-interventionist defenders were right to view the reaction against the Hagel nomination as hysterical and were right to defend Hagel on those terms, but some appeared to project their own hopes and desires onto him beyond what his history suggested was appropriate. This was complicated by the fact that Hagel was heavily opposed by many supporters of Israel for alleged insufficient deference to that country, and I believe some non-interventionists became invested in winning this one just so the Israel partisans couldn’t claim a scalp.

To be clear, Hagel’s reputation for foreign policy restraint was not entirely unwarranted. Hagel voted in support of the original authorization to use force in Iraq. This was very unfortunate, but a lot of people who should have known better got swept up in the war hysteria of the moment, and voted as Hagel did.* But Hagel appeared to later recognize that our aggressive foreign policy was counter-productive, and became a harsh critic of “the surge.” His resistance to the surge and his general reluctance to embrace the standard interventionist apologia for the Iraq War rightly marked him as something other than a typical Republican hawk, but it did not mark him as a fellow non-interventionist. At best, Hagel is a realist, a designation some non-interventionists seem too eager to embrace and conflate with our own cause. This is a tendency I decried at the time of Hagel’s nomination, and still do.

I’m not convinced that Hagel ever even warranted the realist label. I see him as simply a less bellicose internationalist, a Lawrence Eagleburger/James Baker type. He wants America to play a leading role around the globe, but unlike the neocons and other hawks, he does not always lead with military action and is more open to diplomacy and multilateral decision making. He sees knee-jerk militarism as bad for business and budgets and potentially harmful to America’s international reputation. This makes him an old school establishment Republican, not a realist. The guy was at one time the chairman of the Atlantic Group, for crying out loud, a point I made incessantly when he was being trumpeted by some non-interventionists as a bold change of pace.

Realism is a tough concept to pin down. There is a real school of thought in international affairs called Realism, which is said to be informed by Hobbes and Machiavelli, which rejects supra-state actors and does seem to sync to some degree with non-interventionism, although many non-interventionists, especially libertarians, would be appalled at the suggestion that their belief system is informed by either of these thinkers. However, a thorough discussion of this subject would quickly exceed the scope of this article. (I hesitate to say this, but the Wikipedia article on the subject is pretty good, and I think it will calm the fears of some libertarians if they read it.)

Unfortunately for the sake of clarity, this is not how I usually see the term realist or realism used today. Today it seems too often be a virtual synonym for moderate or centrist or, my favorite, “thoughtful.” It does not necessarily reject supra-state or international organizations. In fact, it is often portrayed as more likely to defer to international organizations such as the UN or international consensus. But unlike internationalist liberals, whether of the leftist or neo-”conservative” variety, it favors actions that are “realistic” and based on self-interest rather than ideological goals like spreading democracy or toppling dictators. It generally does not reject the US playing an outsized role on the world’s stage, although it would advise a more tempered view than believing the US to be an “indispensable nation” as neocon ideologues do. As you can see, a former chairman of the Atlantic Group who reportedly wants a stronger US response to Syria and ISIS is not a realist of either the technical or common use variety.

So this brings us back to my initial contention that the Hagel affair illustrates well the toxic situation for non-interventionists that is the current foreign policy consensus masquerading as debate in America: neocons and other uber-hawks represent one end of the spectrum, and Hagel, as perceived in the fertile imaginations of his enemies, represents the outermost edge of acceptable dissent. This is why I believe it is harmful for non-interventionists to hitch their wagon to people like Hagel without being very careful to make the necessary distinctions. Doing so allows Hagel-style dissent to represent the opposition in the minds of the masses. We need not reject political pragmatism, but we must relentlessly make the necessary rhetorical distinctions. The fact that non-interventionists are virtually unrepresented in the foreign policy halls of power, is what makes our voices crying in the wilderness to challenge the current consensus so crucially important. We aren’t within, despite the wishful thinking of some, therefore we must shout from without.

What to do about our woeful underrepresentation is of crucial importance, and will be the subject of a future essay. In the meantime, keep shouting. favicon

*As an aside, we should never forget the brave Republicans who resisted their party and their base, and cast a no vote. One, Ron Paul, has since risen to great prominence. Perhaps our cause should look at that remaining talent pool. I will write more about this in an upcoming column.

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