Jacob Heilbrunn

The Wall Street Journal Goes to War Against Chuck Hagel

One of the most significant lessons of the Cold War is that American toughness led to victory over the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan's defense buildup, coupled with his forthright talk about the heinous nature of communism, accelerated the collapse of the evil empire. The example of Reagan teaches that American presidents who refuse to treat with foreign adversaries and insist upon bringing about change will carry the day. Anything less savors of appeasement, of truckling to bad guys around the globe who will pounce upon any sign of American lack of resolve.

At least this is the line that neocons continue to champion, and the latest Wall Street Journal editorial on Chuck Hagel and John F. Kerry beautifully reflects it. The editorial is entitled "A Flock of Doves." Essentially, it bemoans that Hagel and Kerry are unlikely to lead America into further wars. Tough talk is treated as tantamount to a wise foreign policy. Really, it's as easy as that.

Which is why the Journal complains that Kerry's entire career has been that of a wussbag who, more or less, cowers at his own shadow:

His instincts have typically been to oppose the use of American force abroad and to engage adversaries as if they share our own peaceful goals. Like Joe Biden, he resisted Ronald Reagan's policies that ended the Cold War, opposed the Gulf War in 1990, supported the Iraq war but then changed his mind, and opposed the 2007 surge that salvaged Iraq.

If Kerry is bad news, the paper suggests, then Hagel is worse, much worse. The former Senator of Nebraska is, of all things, George McGovern redux. Now it is true that Hagel, like McGovern, actually fought in a major conflict—McGovern was a bomber pilot in World War II, while Hagel saw combat in Vietnam. To be sure, the Journal acknowledges Hagel's bravery, but in a rather backhanded way: "Though he fought he admirably in Vietnam (and has two Purple Hearts),"—did anyone, by the way, fight unadmirably in Vietnam?—"Mr. Hagel's security views have more closely resembled a George McGovern strain of Republicanism." It goes on to accuse him of "neo-isolationism," a rather elastic term in the hands of the Journal and its neoconservative confreres.

Does it really amount to isolationism to advocate, as does Hagel, talking to Iran? The truth is that a truly isolationist policy would consist of espousing that America wash its hands of Iran, distance itself from Israel, and declare that none of the messes in the Middle East are our problem. That does not appear to be what Hagel has said. Rather, he opposed sanctions on Tehran because he believed they would impede a path to resolving peacefully the tensions surrounding the Iranian nuclear program.  Call it naive, foolish, or misguided. But you can't dub this "neo-isolationist."

The Journal also complains about Hagel's stances toward Russia. Once again it sees him as the plaything of Vladimir Putin. Hagel, it warns, "has been a notable critic of missile defenses and he wanted to halt their development as long as Russia is opposed." But there are many reasons to approach the idea of a missile defense with caution—it makes little sense to antagonize Russia needlessly and any system would likely be prohibitively costly. The grumbling about Russia savors more of nostalgia for the Cold War than a rational approach toward a country that is neither friend nor foe. Anyway, Russia has enough internal problems without trying to embark on the kind of role as international troublemaker that those pining for a Russia threat envision.

What the Journal really seems to fear, however, is that Hagel would emasculate the military budget. It claims that he would provide cover for President Obama to "shrink the Pentagon so he can finance ObamaCare and other entitlements." But after a decade of ballooning spending, the Pentagon should be shrunk, and the shrinkage Obama is contemplating is hardly that radical. In fact, Obama is set to spend about $8 trillion on defense in the coming decade. Put otherwise, one-sixth of the annual federal budget will be spent on defense.

The Hagel brouhaha, in short, is more interesting for what it says about his neocon detractors than anything that it says about him. They want to lay down another marker about what constitutes the boundaries of debate over foreign policy on Israel and Russia. Hagel's own record suggests that, by and large, he has got it right on the big questions facing America. Whether President Obama has the determination to stare down the motley crew of neocons who are trying to swiftboat Hagel for his forthright stands is an open question.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/PumpkinSky.