The Meaning of the Hagel Fight

His nomination was a series of proxy battles over the past and future of American foreign policy.

As Chuck Hagel finally appears set to win Senate confirmation and take his place as secretary of defense, bringing the heated public debate over his nomination to an end, we’re left with one question: What was this all about, anyway?

Almost no one looks good coming out of the months-long fight since Hagel’s name was first floated for the position. Hagel will go into his new job appearing bruised and weakened. Senate Democrats provided the votes he needed for confirmation but were otherwise mostly absent from the debate. Senate Republicans and their outside allies launched a relentless campaign against Hagel, which raised a number of legitimate concerns but also frequently veered into outlandish, false accusations and smears. And while the episode will likely have little political impact on President Obama, even some of his own allies have publicly wondered why he nominated Hagel to begin with.

The debate over Hagel was far removed from the actual responsibilities that he will now take on in running the Pentagon. As others have pointed out, Hagel’s confirmation hearing focused overwhelmingly on Israel and Iran, with those two countries mentioned 178 and 169 times, respectively. In contrast, Afghanistan, where the United States is currently engaged in a war and has sixty-eight thousand troops serving, got thirty-eight mentions. China—America’s most significant strategic challenger and the principal reason for the “pivot” to Asia that Hagel will be charged with executing—got a mere five.

Meanwhile, as the process moved on the accusations made against Hagel grew more and more shrill, culminating in the false claim that Hagel had once been paid to give a speech to a nonexistent group with the ridiculous name “Friends of Hamas.” A New York Daily News reporter later revealed that he had been the original source of this rumor—in a joke he made to an unnamed Republican Senate aide.

But when you strip away the hysteria, what was this all really about? Part of the answer lies in the way that Hagel became a proxy for a series of broader arguments about the direction of U.S. foreign and defense policy. Writing at Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall suggests that what is most important about Hagel’s nomination “is that it signals a real closing of the door on the Bush era.” According to Marshall, where the “Bush/neoconservative approach” supports a “belligerent unilateralism” based on the vision of “an abundantly powerful and yet deeply endangered America,” Obama’s foreign policy has been centered on “unwinding” the “commitments, practices and open wars” of the Bush years. Hagel, he says, is part of this “running critique of Bush era foreign policy” from Democrats and old-guard Republican realists. Marshall sums up why this matters:

President Obama was elected 4 years ago. He has whatever policies he has. And he’ll be there for the next four years. But who he chooses is important. Not because Chuck Hagel is going to be guiding policy — this White House is notorious for keeping cabinet secretaries on a very short leash. But nominating Hagel and getting him confirmed says that this is ‘mainstream’, that this is the President’s direction.

Marshall exaggerates the differences between the two presidents, but he’s right that these differences are real and meaningful—especially to certain opponents of Hagel. The best example is John McCain, who used his questioning in Hagel’s confirmation hearing to relitigate the Iraq War and the subsequent surge. Hagel, of course, was probably the most prominent elected Republican official to break with George W. Bush over the Iraq War and speak out against the neoconservative vision of reshaping the Middle East. It’s no surprise that his nomination would elicit strong opposition from those like McCain who still believe that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with the Bush administration’s big-picture grand strategy and the initial decision to invade Iraq.