The recent reports that former senator Chuck Hagel is likely to be nominated as the next secretary of defense have caused a flurry of commentary from foreign-policy writers and analysts. Among the most brutal assessments comes from Michael Rubin at the American Enterprise Institute. Interviewed by Kevin Baron, Rubin says:
I think his vision of foreign affairs and defense goes beyond naïve and actually is malign. . . . The man really does seem to be an isolationist.
What about Hagel could have prompted such an accusation? Rubin says that Hagel would abdicate “the idea of America being a power throughout the world.” But let’s take a look at what exactly this means in practice. The major criticisms made against Hagel have been that he might support shrinking the defense budget (or at least limiting further increases), that he opposes a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and that he would be averse to future humanitarian interventions or nation-building efforts.
But presumably, even if Hagel were a dictator and could set America’s foreign and defense policies by himself, the United States would retain by far the largest military in the world, maintain a global network of alliances, trade and engage diplomatically across the world, and go to war if any of its core national interests were truly threatened.
In short, by any definition, it is ludicrous to call Hagel an isolationist. Simply put, hawks and neoconservatives have reduced the term “isolationist” to meaninglessness by applying it to anyone who doesn’t reflexively support using military force to solve every problem around the world. The fact is that, as TNI’s Jacob Heilbrunn suggests over at Foreign Policy, Hagel is comfortably within the old-school Republican realist tradition. Whether he is a terrible pick or a brilliant one, it’s wrong to pretend that he would represent an enormous shift from the foreign-policy mainstream in any significant way.