x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Neocons must be cautious in challenging Chuck Hagel

The support for Mr Hagel from the military establishment is a repudiation of the mindset that plunged the US into the Iraq disaster

It was the philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel who suggested that history's significant moments repeat themselves; it was Karl Marx who added the memorable qualifier "first as a tragedy, then as a farce".

Now, the German philosopher's homophone, former US Senator Chuck Hagel, has become the focus of a Washington farce performed by the authors of America's tragic war in Iraq.

Despite the protests of conservative Republican senators and neoconservative ideologues, President Barack Obama has nominated Mr Hagel to be US secretary of defence. The hawks have vowed to stop him, claiming the former Republican senator from Nebraska is hostile to Israel, soft on Iran and anti-Semitic in his views. Fireworks are expected at forthcoming Senate hearings before an approval vote, and the Hagel indictment appears tailored to enlist the support of that overwhelming Congressional majority that reliably does the bidding of the Israel lobby.

But the story may play out quite differently. A notable absentee from the anti-Hagel campaign is the flagship Israel lobbying organisation, AIPAC, which has certainly championed a hawkish line on Israel and Iran but is reportedly staying out of this fight, saying it "does not take positions on presidential nominations".

The Obama administration is said to have lobbied the powerful group before announcing the nomination, but its stance could simply be pragmatic. Even if AIPAC leaders balk at Mr Hagel's scepticism about attacking Iran - and his belief that the most important thing the US can do for Israel "is to help Israel and the Palestinians find some peaceful way to live together" - they know the preternaturally cautious president would not have gone to the mat for Mr Hagel unless he was confident of carrying the day. If so, as former AIPAC official Steve Rosen told the Daily Beast website, AIPAC "is probably going to have to make friends with Chuck Hagel".

Mr Hagel's voting record reflects strong support for Israel's security, but he has refused to back initiatives he believes jeopardise long-term peace prospects. "Israel is in a very, very difficult position," Mr Hagel told his hometown paper on Monday. "We need to work to help protect Israel so it doesn't get isolated," adding that "furthering the peace process in the Middle East is in Israel's interest".

The reason for Mr Obama's choosing Mr Hagel has nothing to do with Israel; it's all about America, its role in the world and the place of military force within that outlook. Mr Hagel has impeccable credentials as a Vietnam War hero, but he is also a stalwart of the GOP's foreign policy "realist" wing that last dominated in the administration of the first President Bush, which has become an endangered species within a party. It's precisely because they see more risk than benefit in America launching elective wars, such as the invasion of Iraq, to effect political change abroad that Republican realists are so detested by neocons who seek to reorder the world through shock and awe.

The outpouring of public support for Mr Hagel from within the foreign policy and military establishment is a repudiation of the mindset that plunged the US into the Iraq disaster.

So, while Israel hawks may see Mr Hagel's scepticism about attacking Iran as damning, many in the foreign policy and military establishment consider it a sign that he's prudent, sensible and willing to speak unpopular truths.

Republicans try to paint his views as "outside the mainstream", but his position on war with Iran, for example, tracks with that of Gen Martin Dempsey, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, who has long made clear that the uniformed military believes bombing the Islamic Republic would be a dangerous blunder - and with that of Mr Obama's previous defence secretary, Robert Gates.

President Obama said on Monday that he chose Mr Hagel because of his record of service as an enlisted infantryman in Vietnam, representing "the guy at the bottom, who's doing the fighting and the dying ... He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that's something we only do when it's absolutely necessary." That was a shot across the bow of the neocons, many of whom avoided serving in the military.

"When I was in Vietnam in 1968, US senators [were] making decisions that affected my life and a lot of people who lost their lives," Mr Hagel said in 2002. "The people in Washington make the policy, but it's the little guys who come back in the body bag."

Decisions about new wars will not be Mr Hagel's, of course, but Mr Obama's - and many believe the Hagel furore is really a tilt at Mr Obama's own perceived reluctance to commit to new wars in Syria, Iran or elsewhere. At the Pentagon, Mr Hagel will expedite the US exit from Afghanistan and resist any proposal to leave substantial forces behind, and he is also expected to begin cutting military spending that the US can no longer afford, and that is not justified in the post-Cold War environment. That makes Mr Hagel bad news not only for neocons, but also for Republicans who want to cut spending on everything except the military.

And bad news, also, for what Mr Hagel's proclaimed hero, President Dwight D Eisenhower, dubbed the "military-industrial complex". Mr Hagel is expected to follow Mr Gates's lead in pursuing vigorous cost-cutting.

Above all, Chuck Hagel is a fighter. "I am very much looking forward to having a full, open, transparent hearing about my qualifications and my record," he said on Monday. The contrarian former senator's willingness to duke it out ought to give the neocons pause. If they make his confirmation process a battle over the wisdom of starting a war with Iran, and then lose that battle, they will weaken the influence of their hawkish line, and embolden those seeking alternatives.


Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst

On Twitter: @TonyKaron