Jacob Heilbrunn

Chuck Hagel and Richard Nixon's 100th Birthday

Even Chuck Hagel, who, like most senators, probably does not have a modest assessment of his talents and abilities, must be taken aback by the furor surrounding his nomination to head the Defense department. Before President Obama nominated him, most Americans had probably forgotten, if they ever knew, who Hagel was or what he represented. His legislative record is fairly unremarkable. Nor, unless it has somehow escaped my notice, has he said anything memorable during his recent years laboring in obscurity as a professor at Georgetown University.

Yet his nomination has sent Washington into paroxysms. Feminists are lamenting that he is not a woman. Minorities are unhappy that he is not a minority. And conservatives are bemoaning that he is not a real conservative.

How has the Hagel nomination acquired such significance?

Hagel has become a kind of screen onto which the various members of the political class are projecting their own visions and animuses. For various Republican Senators his nomination has become an opportunity to vent their exasperation with his criticisms of the Iraq War which were, by and large, cogent and sensible. The fact that Hagel broke ranks, so to speak, and endeared himself to liberals is giving them a chance to wage war by other means, to refight the political battles of the Iraq War one more time, to suggest that the Vietnam War veteran is unworthy of the top defense post. This is absurd. There is no point in relitigating the Iraq War. It was a patent failure. Do conservatives believe that they can somehow convince the public that the war was, in the end, fine and dandy? If questioned about the war, Hagel himself will no doubt argue, with conviction and authority, that it is precisely his experiences in Vietnam which made it incumbent for him to stick up for the soldiers who were shipped into the field by Donald Rumsfeld and Co. with no real plan for the occupation of Iraq, apart from the conviction that the Iraqis, somehow or other, would welcome Americans and reorganize themselves along the lines of the American model. 

But even this would not be enough to sink Hagel's nomination. It constitutes an irritant but not a positive disqualification. No, what is really transpiring are, I think, three things. The first is that neocons initially thought that they might have another Charles Freeman on their hands, the former ambassador to Saudi Arabia whose nomination to head the National Intelligence Council was scuttled by a concerted campaign to depict him as a perfervid anti-Semite. Taking down Hagel would set an even bigger marker. But the attempt to transform Hagel into anti-Semite has, to some extent boomeranged, which is why AIPAC has prudently decided not to oppose him. The second thing is what David Brooks points to in his New York Times column today, which is that the Defense department is going to be on the receiving end of some rather sharp budget cuts. Who better to oversee the surgery than a longtime Republican whose patriotic bona fides are, at bottom, indisputable? The third reason is an extension of the second, which is, as David Rothkopf shrewdly observes in Foreign Policy, that Hagel and John F. Kerry are, more or less, what he calls "disengagers." They have a different view of the world than either liberal hawks or neoconservatives, which is to say that they believe in restraint and diplomacy before engaging in the use of force. In this regard, they may end up following the approach of Richard Nixon; as Rothkopf observes, he "was a man who offset military disengagement with active diplomatic engagement. It would be an interesting irony if Obama, Kerry, and Hagel ultimately ended up emulating this underappreciated aspect of the late, not-so-lamented president's legacy."

Perhaps there is even more to it than that. Does all this represent a belated return to the Nixon doctrine enunicated by Richard Nixon in Guam in 1969, when he announced that American allies would have to fend for themselves first? Tomorrow, the centennial of Nixon, who entered office at a moment of great tumult and exited it even more tumultuously, will mark another occasion for America to come to terms with its changing geopolitical position. It would be a pity if the Hagel hearing degenerates into a prolonged and tedious forensic examination of his past statements rather than examining how the country can avoid accelerating its own sunset as a great power.