LOWRY/Against the Hagel nomination
Monday, December 24, 2012 12:00 AM
It has been a bad time for the Republican Party, and wouldn't you know it? The worst addition to President Barack Obama's foreign-policy team could well be a Republican.
Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel is reportedly under serious consideration to replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense. A self-styled foreign-policy realist, Hagel is out of the mainstream and terminally naive.
We all know the peril of a senator waking up every morning and seeing the next president of the United States in the bathroom mirror. Hagel woke up every morning and thought he saw the next Henry Kissinger.
It would be one thing if Hagel were merely what he so often seemed when he was a regular on the Sunday talk shows - a tiresome purveyor of conventional wisdom overly impressed with his own seriousness. That would make him no different than about 90 other senators. It's that his realism is so profoundly unrealistic and bizarrely skewed.
At the core of his foreign policy is disdain for Israel and unquenchable desire to talk to terrorists. His realism is a pastiche of attitudes fashionable at Council on Foreign Relations meetings or the World Economic Forum in Davos, crystalized into an idée fixe lacking all nuance or true thoughtfulness.
Hagel has caught grief for once referring to pro-Israel groups as the "Jewish lobby." Let's assume that, as he insists, he aped vaguely anti-Semitic language in an innocent slip of the tongue. Hey, it happens. But Hagel clearly has the contempt for Israel of a Euro-sophisticate.
For him, it is forever incumbent on Israel to "take steps to show its commitment to peace," as he put it in the midst of a Palestinian suicide-bombing campaign in 2002. The Jewish state is beset by Hamas, Hezbollah and Syria on its borders and Iran over its horizon, but somehow it is Israel's commitment to peace that is perpetually in doubt.
When called on to act against or even simply condemn Israel's enemies (and ours), Hagel was usually the Bartleby of the Senate and answered, "I'd prefer not to." He voted against the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act in 2001, didn't vote on the Syria Accountability Act sanctioning Bashar Assad's regime in 2003, refused to sign a letter urging the European Union to label Hezbollah a terrorist group in 2006, opposed designating Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization in 2007 and blocked another proposed bout of sanctions against Iran in 2008.
To oppose striking Iran militarily for fear that it would be ineffectual and potentially backfire is one thing. To oppose sanctioning Iran is lunatic.
Hagel believes that a breakthrough of understanding with some of the most recalcitrant dictatorships in the world is always one earnest conversation away. So, he wanted to talk directly to Hamas, Assad and the mullahs. The correctness of this policy impulse is nonfalsifiable because if it doesn't work, its failure is attributed to insufficient effort on our part. If only we talked more and backed Israel less.
There is much to be said for Hagel's warnings prior to the Iraq War that the conflict would have unintended consequences. So it did - horrifying ones. But, at the end of the day, Hagel voted for the war. Then, he opposed the surge as "the most dangerous foreign-policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."
This combination makes him either a gutless dove or a foolish hawk, or maybe a little of both. If the war is a historic mistake, don't vote to authorize it. If you have voted to authorize it, don't oppose the one way to save it from becoming an utter fiasco.
It's not clear what draws Obama to Hagel. Maybe it's the superciliousness. Or maybe it's the gesture toward bipartisanship his nomination would supposedly represent.
Regardless, Democrats are in the ascendance. Surely, the president can find someone more suitable from the ranks of his own party. Please, let's have a partisan appointment for secretary of defense.
Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.