Over a decade ago Ruy Teixeira and John B. Judis published a book called The Emerging Democratic Majority. Their argument was that a new "progressive centrism" was emerging and that it was based on demographic and social trends. Then came George W. Bush and Karl Rove. By 2004 Rove was declaring that he had created a new conservative governing coalition. Then came 2006. Rove had failed.
Since the 2012 presidential election, the Teixeira-Judis thesis, once branded empty, is getting a fresh and well-deserved look. And so a new flurry of speculation has emerged about President Obama. Can the Democratic party duplicate his success in the past two presidential elections? Has Obama created a new majority? Are the Republicans doomed to obsolescence?
In an enlightening article in the latest (and final) issue of the Hoover Institution's Policy Review, the magazine's longtime editor Tod Lindberg tackles these questions. Operating at a fairly high level of abstraction—Lindberg never quite defines what or who makes up the "Left 3.0" that he identifies—Lindberg examines the evolution of the Democratic Party and the Left over the past few decades. He doesn't quite put it this way, but he appears to suggest that the Left has grown up, while the Right is in danger of splitting into multifarious factions, each vying for a shrinking slice of the electorate and condemning the other as false to the true faith, whatever it may be.
To be sure, Lindberg argues that there are continuities between the aspirations of the old Left and the new version. But what is most distinctive about his essay is the cool and impartial manner in which he dissects the changes that have taken place in the Democratic party. He echoes David Brooks in concluding that former radicals have largely been domesticated, even turned bourgeois. The radical thing about the Democratic Party, you could say, is that it doesn't believe in old-time radicalism. For example, Lindberg writes that
There are, no doubt, a few aging radicals who still dream of sweeping the whole capitalist system away and starting over. But never in the history of the Left have such views been so marginal. Once the vanguard of the Left, the radicals are now its pets.
Violence on the Left seems largely confined to scuffles during demonstrations, and indeed, the Left is now heavily vested in the proposition that the real danger of political violence comes from the extreme right. Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, casts a longer shadow now than any remnant of the Weather Underground. The last thing Left 3.0 would wish to be thought is dangerous.
The Democratic Party may be in a strong position to consolidate its recent gains. For one thing, the infighting among Republicans—the latest example is Karl Rove's establishment of a division of American Crossroads to support more moderate Republican candidates in congressional races, a move that is drawing outraged cries of heresy and treachery from Tea Party circles—is helping to shore up Democratic electoral fortunes. But as Lindberg cogently points out, it is also the case that Democrats are better organized and more attuned to what the electorate actually wants—generational differences, the changes in the demographics are all ensuring that the GOP brand has passed its sell-by date, an argument underscored by a highly informative essay in the January/February issue of the American Prospect by Celinda Lake, Michael Adams, and David Mermin which contains a lengthy analysis of recent polls that show, among other things, that 75 percent of Americans under thirty agree with the statement that "I would be happy if someone in my family married someone of a different race" and 54 percent agree that "It should be primarily government, not the private sector, that is concerned with solving the country's social problems."
According to Lindberg,
A united conservative movement is unlikely any time soon to find itself at one with the Republican Party in the manner in which Left 3.0 is at one with the Democratic Party. First, one would need a united conservative movement, which is difficult to envision in its own right, leaving aside its potential for melding with the gop.
In a broader sense, though, the Left differs from the Right in knowing where it wants to go: in the direction of more equality. Conservatives mostly know where they want to stay: in conditions in which liberty can thrive and the market can work its wonders in creating prosperity. Since the push in the direction of equality will sometimes impinge on liberty and on the market in ways that people will notice and object to, conservative reform will once again have its day. But today belongs to Left 3.0.
Faced with this prospect, the conservative movement might detach itself from the Republican party. Is it possible that conservatism will flourish as a niche industry even as the GOP goes down to electoral defeats? Republicans may think they can simply rebrand their party, but it needs an entire reboot.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Soman. CC BY-SA 2.5.
One of the more lamentable traits of neoconservatism has been steadily to try and lower the bar of who—or what—is deemed anti-Semitic. Elliott Abrams, for example, recently denounced former Senator and Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel as an anti-Semite, a grave accusation that boomeranged on him as even Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass, nominally Abrams' boss, felt constrained to observe that it was a preposterous statement. Now a web site called the Washington Free Beacon, which is edited by Matthew Continetti, a son-in-law of William Kristol, who is the editor of the Weekly Standard, has descried anti-Semitism at the New Republic.
The Beacon alleges that the new owner of the magazine, Chris Hughes, is purging Jewish contributing editors from the masthead. It says,
The New Republic has quietly dropped at least five prominent Jewish writers from its masthead in a move that may signal the publication’s continued drift away from a staunchly pro-Israel standpoint.
The magazine has launched an aggressive new editorial direction under the ownership of wealthy socialite Chris Hughes, who is best known for sharing a room with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg at Harvard University.
The names of several prominent Jewish writers from both the left and right of the political spectrum were dropped from TNR’s masthead in the latest issue.
Now this would be rather ominous if it were true, if Hughes were really intent on making his new premises Judenrein. But to use vice-president Joe Biden's favorite term, it's malarkey. The fact is that the magazine has periodically trimmed its contributing editor masthead (to which I once belonged). It's an honorific rather than a formal post. Moreover, as Jonathan Chait points out, the Beacon itself notes by the end of its note that a number of other writers are being dropped as contributing editors as well: "the facts of the story turn out to be that a magazine has conducted some routine trimming of its unpaid, ceremonial list, and five of the writers deprived of their ceremonial title are Jewish and seven are not!" It's also the case that Peter Beinart, who has made waves with his criticisms of Israel and its American advocates, is also dropped from the masthead, an inconvenient fact that directly contradicts the already tendentious claims of the Beacon, which are attracting widespread ridicule.
Nevertheless, it does seem clear that in dropping several neocons from its masthead the magazine continues, at least symbolically, to sever its links to the movement whose foreign policy credo it once championed, particularly during the Iraq War. The era of Martin Peretz is over. A new one looms. What the future precisely holds for TNR, which is making a bold attempt to try and revivify itself, remains an open question. But it is clear that the neocons are becoming increasingly shrill as they watch a magazine they once relied on to mainstream their ideas seek out more fertile territory than the arid doctrines of yesteryear. This development has nothing to do with anti-Semitism and everything to do with intellectual honesty.
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Former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is intent on making a political comeback, has a knack for stirring up controversy. He has repeatedly uttered politically incorrect statements and engaged in outlandish, if not bizarre, behavior. But he has crossed into dangerous territory with his remarks defending the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini on Holocaust Remembrance Day in Milan.
Mussolini began his career as a man on the left and then migrated to the right, where he led the March on Rome to install his personal dictatorship in 1922 as the head of the country's National Fascist Party. His success led Hitler to try and emulate Mussolini's march to power with the Beer Hall putsch in Munich in 1923. It failed. Hitler was put on trial and given a light sentence. But the lesson Hitler drew was that he had to come to power by democratic means. Nevertheless, the example of Mussolini helped embolden Hitler in his belief that he, too, could lead a fascist revolution in Germany.
Mussolini was not intent on mass extermination of the Jews, but that is hardly the measure. Mussolini, three years after the 1935 Nuremberg racial laws, passed his own, and worked, as far as possible, to extrude Jews from Italian society, including interning them in concentration camps in Italy. Whether Mussolini was a hardened fanatic or a ruthless opportunist, as the historian Denis Mack Smith has argued, is not really germane. The result of his alliance with Hitler was catastrophic. Once Hitler occupied Italy in 1943, thousands of Jews were deported to the death camps. In 2013 it should hardly be necessary to recite these well-known facts. But Berlusconi's remarks testify to the lingering attachment of some Italians to neo-fascist sentiments and to the urge to polish up their own history rather than confront the obvious.
Supposedly, Winston Churchill said it was fine that Italy was on the side of England's opponents since "we had them last time"—a jest about the inefficacy of the Italian fighting forces. But the fact remains that Mussolini, a vicious despot, plighted his troth with Hitler and Italians, and particularly Jewish Italians, ended up paying the price. But Berlusconi is engaging in the kind of historical revisionism that the right has sometimes tried to perpetrate in Germany as well—the notion that Hitler, or Mussolini, had their good sides and their bad sides, and that distinctions can be made between their policies, when the truth is that they cannot, and that the two dictators directed everything toward militarism and war, policies that ended up leading their countries into an abyss from which it took them decades to emerge.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Berlusconi announced,
"It's difficult now to put yourself in the shoes of people who were making decisions at that time," said Berlusconi, 76, who is campaigning ahead of elections in February.
"Obviously the government of that time, out of fear that German power might lead to complete victory, preferred to ally itself with Hitler's Germany rather than opposing it," he said. "As part of this alliance, there were impositions, including combating and exterminating Jews. The racial laws were the worst fault of Mussolini as a leader, who in so many other ways did well."
What Berlusconi and other revisionists will never concede is that racial laws were not incidental to these fascist regimes, but their very essence. Mussolini allied himself not because he was cowering before Nazi Germany, but because he reckoned he would end up on the winning side with all the spoils that would entail. He was wrong. With his historical contortions, which are as pathetic as they are offensive, he is defending the indefensible. Berlusconi, who likely hopes to curry favor with voters on the right, is simply bringing further discredit upon himself and Italy. His remarks offer a reminder of the moral obtuseness of those who would try to efface rather than remember the Holocaust. The sooner this odious man disappears from the political scene, the better.
Image: Left half public domain, right half Wikimedia Commons/European People's Party, CC BY 2.0.
Florida Senator Marco Rubio just made a small but significant move that indicates he is preparing to run for the presidency. He has hired Jamie M. Fly, until recently executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative and a former Bush administration official, to serve as his senior national security adviser. It's a shrewd decision, at least within the context of a Republican party that refuses to acknowledge that the Iraq War was less than a roaring success, and one that further testifies to the mounting dominance of the neocons. By and large, they set the template for the discussion of foreign policy in the GOP. Their ascendance suggests that it is most improbable that a debate, let alone a civil war, will erupt within the GOP over foreign affairs. On the contrary, the neocons appear to be more firmly in control than ever.
The Foreign Policy Initiative is an organization that was created in 2009 by William Kristol to groom new and younger cadres. The organization appears to be a success, boasting no less than three separate leadership programs, with one in New York and two in Washington, DC. Fly is himself a savvy and energetic neocon who has staked out a very hard line in foreign affairs on issues ranging from Syria to Afghanistan to Israel. This past fall, in Foreign Policy, he declared that Obama
has serially alienated allies and failed to speak out on behalf of those oppressed by despotic regimes, even as he engages the tyrants who threaten U.S. interests and crush dissent. As Iran gets closer to a nuclear weapons capability by the day, the gap between the United States and our ally Israel, grows and terrorist plots and attacks on U.S. personnel ordered by Tehran go unanswered.
His appointment to Rubio's staff attests to the influence of the neocons within the GOP and Kristol's success at promoting his associates.
His most notable publication is an essay in Foreign Affairs co-authored with Gary Schmitt calling for an American attack on Iran:
a limited military strike would only be a temporary fix, and it could actually do the opposite of what it intends—drive the program further underground and allow Iran to retain the ability to threaten the United States and its allies.If the United States seriously considers military action, it would be better to plan an operation that not only strikes the nuclear program but aims to destabilize the regime, potentially resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis once and for all.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that regime change would occur as a result of any air assault, no matter how massive, or, for that matter, that an assault would really be, as Oliver North once put it about the Iran-Contra caper, a "neat idea." It could just send the whole region up in flames or end up bolstering the regime. The more salient point, for now, is that Rubio is clearly staking out his territory—no enemies to the right when it comes to foreign affairs. His move will likely nudge other possible candidates to sign on neocons as well as a proleptic campaign defense measure.
As an important new article by Jill Lepore in the New Yorker shows, there has been little effort to reassess America's military stance after the cold war. Lepore, who cites the views of Boston University's Andrew J. Bacevich, a prominent critic of American militarism, makes a simple but fundamental point:
The United States, separated from much of the world by two oceans and bordered by allies, is, by dint of geography, among the best-protected countries on earth. Nevertheless, six decades after V-J Day nearly three hundred thousand American troops are stationed overseas, including fifty-five thousand in Germany, thirty-five thousand in Japan, and ten thousand in Italy. Much of the money that the federal government spends on “defense” involves neither securing the nation’s borders nor protecting its citizens. Instead, the U.S. military enforces American foreign policy.
It would be difficult to disagree. Obama has pulled America out of Iraq, and is pulling it out of Afghanistan, but no fundamental debate about the power and purpose of America abroad exists either in the administration or on Capitol Hill. Instead, an observer who had missed the past twenty years might be forgiven upon returning for concluding that America remained under the same siege mentality that prevailed during the cold war. Substitute China or Islamic terror for the Soviet Union, and all the same arguments can be heard. The most prominent exponents of ideas such as regime change remain the neocons.But as Lepore suggests, there is increasing unease among the American population with such truculence, not to mention among the military: "Younger veterans are critical, too. A 2011 Pew survey of veterans of Afghanistan and Iraq found that half thought the war in Afghanistan wasn’t worth fighting, and nearly sixty per cent thought the Iraq War wasn’t." There can be little doubting that Americans are not eager for more warfare in Iran or Syria or other hotspots. These sentiments, however, are not reflected in the GOP. Instead, Obama is signaling that he will elevate diplomacy above truculence in his second term, while the neocons denounce him for his alleged pusillanimity.Speaking on PBS on Tuesday night, for example, AEI's Danielle Pletka denounced the Obama administration in apocalyptic language for ignoring the myriad threats to American security:
I think the entire trend has been troubling. And I think Benghazi was merely a symptom of a larger policy of retreat, of unwillingness to deal with the challenges that we're facing from al-Qaida, because it's not just in the Maghreb. It's not just in Libya and in Mali and in Algeria. It's also in Yemen. It's in Sinai. It's in Iraq. It's, of course, in South Asia and Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The threats are anywhere and everywhere, in other words. Soon enough it is a neocon credo that Marco Rubio, too, will surely espouse. But until the GOP breaks with such shibboleths, it will face electoral ruin.
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President Obama, long reviled by the left as a trimmer and the right as a socialist, delivered one of his most impassioned and liberal speeches at the inaugural, a fiery exhortation that sought to shift the cultural ground of America. He made explicit what has always been implicit in his improbable odyssey—his drive to unite America around a new credo of unification, based, in part, on a conception of the federal government itself as a unifying force to foster independent drive and initiative. It was an ambitious vision of a liberal and liberalizing and exceptional America. Obama sounded like Reagan even as he repudiated his disdain for big government. In his radical speech, Obama flung down the gauntlet to the Republican Party, defying it to defy him.
Nor did the radicalism end there. It was in foreign affairs that Obama staked out the most temerarious new ground. He made it clear that he was dispensing, more or less, with the George W. Bush era. For all his evocation of American exceptionalism, Obama essentially denied it in foreign policy. He made it clear that there will be no precipitous attack against Iran, a country that he did not even bother to mention in his speech. Instead, Obama enunciated that the age of warfare that has tormented America for the past decade will come to an end. His lodestar will be diplomacy. Liberal hawks and neocons alike will be disconsolate. The Washington Post editorial page is already decrying Obama for engaging in "wishful thinking abroad." Even "a barrelful" of it. My, my, my. Are matters really so dire? "America's adversaries," we are told, "are not in retreat; they will be watching Mr. Obama in his second term to see if the same can be said of the United States."
Maybe so. But there is a distinction between prudence—between husbanding resources and using them strategically—and promiscuous intervention abroad. Is Mali worth a fight or would it boomerang? Should America become directly involved in the Syrian civil war? What are the consequences of bombing Iran? Obama is not an isolationist. But he has no appetite for embarking upon new land wars in the Middle East in either Syria or Iran. He may also choose to pursue a more detached relationship with Israel. The results of the Israeli election today may well occasion more disquiet in the White House.
But will Obama's approach in domestic and foreign affairs be vindicated in the next four years? Scandals or an unexpected war could completely derail his presidency. His second term could lead to greatness or utter disaster, and the record of second term presidencies has been a shaky one at best. National Interest editor Robert Merry observes that Obama's biggest challenge will be reducing the federal budget deficit and entitlements over the next four years. In his speech Obama elided this problem by declaring that he would protect the elderly, the poor, and children. But there is an inevitable collision between entitlements and protecting the economy to promote greater economic growth. Perhaps Obama will elucidate his stance on the budget more clearly in his upcoming State of the Union speech. For now, he has made it clear, however, that he is in a fighting mood. The GOP has been warned. If it wants to pursue a different path, it will have to outline one rather than simply engage in noisy obstructionism. The GOP has already been caught flatfooted on taxes and on raising the debt ceiling.
But Obama, too, will have to perform a partial U-turn. Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Doyle McManus says,
At some point, Obama is likely to need willing collaborators from the opposition—if he hopes to pass an immigration reform law, for example, or negotiate a long-term deal to reduce the deficit.
When that day comes, the president may find himself wishing he had devoted a few more words of his second inaugural address to offering an outstretched hand.
That day is coming soon.
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Today the "Emergency Committee for Israel" is sounding alarms in the New York Times, where it has taken out a full-page ad to inveigh against the nomination of Chuck Hagel to become Secretary of Defense. It asks and simultaneously answers the question, "Who is Chuck Hagel, President Obama's anti-Israel nominee for Secretary of Defense?" It urges readers to call Sen. Charles Schumer and Sen. Kristen Gillibrand to "put country ahead of party" and reject Hagel. The ad is good for the Times, which has been struggling to maintain ad revenue for several years and the paper can only hope that future Obama nominees will arouse similar consternation among the neocons, but it represents a blatant attempt to stir up hysteria among New York Jewish voters about both Hagel and Obama. What we are seeing is the emergence of the kind of self-indulgent behavior that neoconservatives routinely denounce when other minority groups demand special attention and favors in the name of multiculturalism.
There can be no doubting that the Emergency Committee—what, by the way, is the emergency?—can draw upon lurid quotes to tar Hagel's reputation. Rep. Eliot Engel, for example, is quoted as saying "there is some kind of an endemic hostility toward Israel." Meanwhile, the Washington Post editorial board has opposed Hagel, charging that his views "fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term—and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him." The Post's Jennifer Rubin minutes that "Hagel is the personification of 'out of the mainstream' thinking on Israel and Iran." She likens him to Ron Paul and, for good measure, calls his views "noxious." You start to get the feeling that she might not like Hagel.
This is weird stuff. Hagel's voting record in the Senate appears to be solidly conservative, not that of a leftist. For the past few years since he stepped down from the Senate, he has been a member of the Washington, DC foreign policy circuit. At most he has mused about whether more diplomacy might not prompt concessions from Tehran and remarked about the alleged power of the "Jewish lobby," as he put it. There's no reason it should be taboo to believe that another path other than military power should be employed against Iran. The fact is that the Obama administration is already putting the regime in Iran under intense strain with its sanctions program.
But this has not prevented Council on Foreign Relations fellow Elliott Abrams from concluding on National Public Radio that Hagel is "frankly an anti-Semite." A few days later, in the National Review Online, Abrams slightly qualified his remarks. Abrams wrote,
the press has carried several articles now suggesting some sort of a problem between him and the Jewish community, and that is the issue I have raised. In a Monday article in The Weekly Standard, I concluded that “one purpose of confirmation hearings should be to find out” whether this problem existed.
These are extremely serious matters, to be sure. Even the suggestion that there is something worth asking about here should never be made lightly. Various responses have called my allusion to this subject a distraction, a smear, and worse—predictably resorting to far more awful language to describe me personally. So why did I say a problem may exist? Because just as it would be a mistake to raise this entire issue lightly, it is a mistake to give Senator Hagel a pass on the record as it stands without further assessment by the Senate. To advance the argument, I will avoid the term anti-Semitism, because it can mean too many different, particular things, and does not help illuminate the nature of the issue I discussed.
In The Weekly Standard, I noted the remarkable comments by Nebraska Jewish community leaders about the coldness and indifference Hagel displayed to them. As I explained, the long-time editor of the Omaha Jewish Press said Hagel “didn’t give a damn about the Jewish community or any of our concerns.” How is it possible simply to ignore a comment like that?
Actually, it's pretty easy. I'm sorry if a newspaper editor in Omaha felt neglected by Senator Hagel—a not uncommon sentiment among journalists who often resent the politicians they have to cover—but what does that comment actually mean and what precise bearing does it have upon his qualifications to become Secretary of Defense? There is no "problem" that needs to be explored. Nor are these "serious matters." Quite the contrary. They are risible, which is why Abrams' language is as empty as it is portentous. The blunt fact is that in lieu of any hard evidence about the perfidy of Hagel, Abrams is proposing a senatorial fishing expedition that would end up submerging in a sea of innuendo any rational debate about the future direction of American foreign policy.
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Great Britain has been conducting an agonizing reappraisal of its relationship with the European Union. For months Prime Minister David Cameron has been trying to elide the issue of a referendum, while placating the anti-European fanatics in his own Tory Party. Now Philip Gordon, the assistant secretary of state for Europe, has raised eyebrows in London with his statement that it would be foolish for Great Britain to attentuate, or even terminate, its attachment to the European Union.
Gordon apparently told journalists that the British should, in effect, get on with it. He said,
We have a growing relationship with the EU as an institution, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in that EU. That is in America's interests. We welcome an outward-looking EU with Britain in it.
How has it reached the point that Britain, which was denied entry in 1963 into the Common Market by Charles de Gaulle, is now contemplating an exit from the vastly more comprehensive European Union? On Wednesday evening the distinguished British commentator and historian Geoffrey Wheatcroft spoke as part of the Ellsworth lecture series at the Center for the National Interest to elucidate mounting British antipathy towards the European Union. Wheatcroft's message was clear and direct: Great Britain has never felt emotionally attached to the European idea. It was, as the historian Tony Judt observed, one of the few victors of World War II; it did not have to be liberated from the Nazi yoke. It felt superior, even smug, about its record and didn't have to flee, as did the Germans, into the idea of Europe as supplanting its old nationalism. Meanwhile, many Europeans perceived the European Union, at least in its earliest incarnation, as a kind of Catholic confederation, led by the likes of German chancellor Konrad Adenauer. So the British, from the outset, had an ambivalent relationship with the idea of European unity, which was captured in Winston Churchill's famous speech in Zurich in 1946, urging the Europeans forward but reserving an ambiguous status for Great Britain.
But for Great Britain to try and bolt from the European Union would be a disaster for both its and its allies and friends on the continent. Britain, as Wheatcroft suggested, would only end up stranding itself in not-so-splendid isolation. For one thing, the United States would not come of the rescue of its old World War II ally--the idea of a new Anglo-American confederation, which has been touted by some neoconservatives, is a pipedream. There is no conceivable economic incentive for America to elevate Great Britain above, say, Germany, the economic powerhouse of Europe.
Meanwhile, the Irish, as the New York Times points out, are apoplectic at London's EU tergiversations. Prime Minister Enda Kenny said it would be "disastrous" for Britain to leave. He's right. Ireland, for one, has been milking the EU for eleemosynary funds; Kenny's latest tack has been to tell the Germans that Ireland needs further debt relief, which it will likely receive.
It would be foolhardy for Britain to test the patience of its European partners much further. The debate over Europe, as Wheatcroft suggested, is going much farther (and faster) than it ever should have gone. While it might be emotionally satisfying to sever ties with Brussels, the economic results would be catastrophic. Wishful thinking does not constitute sound or rational policy, a lesson that one might think the Blair years had driven home to the British. Alas, there is no guarantee at all that the Tory party, under considerable pressure from the U.K. Independence Party, won't buckle. If Cameron bungles British membership, he will accomplish the not inconsiderable feat of going down as one of the most feckless prime ministers in British history.
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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.
A good case could be made that Margaret Thatcher was the greatest Western leader of the 1980s and 1990s. Her star has been steadily rising in recent years, partly as a result of her prescient opposition to British participation in the Euro. She got it right as well when she pushed George H.W. Bush not to go "wobbly" in facing down Saddam Hussein. Now newly released documents from the British National Archives are further burnishing her reputation and reigniting an old controversy about the Reagan administration's stance before the war over the Falkland Islands.
In 1982, confronted with the invasion of the Falkland Islands by the Argentine junta, led by Gen. Leopoldo Galtieri, Thatcher dispatched the British Navy to rescue the islanders from the malign embrace of the Argentines. She wrote a cable to the old thug Galtieri that said,
“In a few days the British flag will be flying over Port Stanley. In a few days also your eyes and mine will be reading the casualty lists,” she wrote in a previously unseen telegram that was ultimately left unsent to the Argentine leader General Galtieri. “On my side, grief will be tempered by the knowledge that these men died for freedom, justice and the rule of law. And on your side? Only you can answer that question."
The biggest obstacle to freeing the islanders seems to have come from the United States. The British were and remain apoplectic about the conduct of the Reagan administration, particularly its ambassador to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick, who made no secret of her sympathies for the Argentine regime—it was a "right-wing," not a "left-wing" dictatorship, and so fell under the rubric of her famous distinction between the two, with the latter supposedly being impervious to reform or collapse, which meant that the capital of the free world couldn't be too choosy about the reactionary, anti-communist dictatorships it chose to back. Kirkpatrick's behavior comes under particular censure from the British ambassador to Washington. Sir Nicholas Henderson concluded that she and State Department official Thomas Enders played an untoward role in helping to persuade the Argentine generals that that they could get away with occupying the Falklands. According to Sir Nicholas,
"Comparing Kirkpatrick with Enders, it is difficult to improve on the apophthegm going the rounds of the State Department that whereas the latter is more fascist then fool, Kirkpatick is more fool than fascist," he wrote.
"She appears to be one of America's most reliable own-goal scorers: tactless, wrong-headed, ineffective and a dubious tribute to the academic profession to which she expresses her allegiance."
Strong words. But Henderson was vindicated. The Reagan administration came around and the British triumphed, a triumph that was greeted rapturously in Great Britain where it signaled that aggression wouldn't go unchallenged, that the empire could and would strike back decisively. Now the British newspapers are engaging in a new round of schadenfreude, chortling over Kirkpatrick's missteps back in 1982, when she was outmanuevered by more pragmatic Reagan administration officials who saw that American loyalty to a vital ally trumped any concerns over backing the Argentine government. In short order the military men were ousted and Argentine became democratic within a year. The Falklands war proved the undoing of the regime. Thatcher won a smashing victory over both the Argentine junta and her doubters in the Reagan administration. It was not Kirkpatrick's finest hour, and it is one that the British are only too glad to relive decades later.
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.