Monday, January 14, 2013

Chuck Hagel Inspects The Troops

Chuck Hagel Inspects The Troops

The marvelous World War I novel, “All Quiet On The Western Front” contains a scene where Baumer, a young infantryman in the Kaiser’s army, is sent home on leave.  Baumer is out of place; he’s not a schoolboy anymore, he’s outgrown his clothes, his proud but worried family hovers over him.  One day, looking for escape, he wanders the streets.  But there is no private place; he is scooped up by one of his former teachers and dragged to a café table, to be pecked at by a group of middle-aged academics.  As middle-aged men are wont to do they monopolize the conversation; their self-esteem leaves them without a sense of irony.  Too young to have served in the Franco-Prussian War, and too old for World War I, they have all become military experts. Assuming victory, they argue over what sections of Europe Germany should annex.  A Headmaster insists that only all of Belgium, the coal-areas of France, and a part of Russia will do.  Then he turns to Baumer to lecture him on how to prosecute the war.  Enough trench warfare he says, smash through the Jonnies, and on to Paris.  When Baumer demurs, saying that the Army thinks that breakout might not be possible; the Headmaster “dismisses the idea loftily and informs me I know nothing about it. "The details, yes," says he, "but this relates to the whole. And of that you are not able to judge. You see only your little sector and so cannot have any general survey. You do your duty, you risk your lives, that deserves the highest honour--every man of you ought to have the Iron Cross--but first of all the enemy line must be broken through in Flanders and then rolled up from the top."

I thought of this while reading about the Right’s vociferous reaction to President Obama’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, former Republican Senator from Nebraska. Leading the charge, as usual, is the dyspeptic John McCain.  Hagel and McCain were once very close friends; Hagel served as national Co-Chair of McCain’s 2000 Presidential Campaign.  That, of course, was “BB” (Before Barack), so naturally Hagel is no longer qualified. 

McCain has been getting headlines, but he’s really a sideshow.  There are two critical aspects to the Hagel nomination: The first is McCain’s--anything associated with Mr. Obama must be opposed and slimed.  The second is far more strategic.  The Neocons are desperate to defend and promote the “legacy” of George W. Bush; the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are the unmitigated successes of a visionary, we must invade Iran as soon as possible, and, more generally, American military power should be expressed at all times possible, particularly in the Middle East.

Hagel, in particular, is a challenge to that world-view; he is closer to Mr. Obama in looking for defense spending cuts that are anathema to the Right (notwithstanding the Sequester agreement), he supports the draw-down in forces from Afghanistan, Mr. Obama’s more gradualist approach to Iran, and the use of drones to attack high-value targets. 

The problem for the Republicans is that many of those Obama policies are generally supported by the public and were litigated during the last Presidential election cycle, so they are unable to attack them directly. Defending the neo-con position, past any muscular generalities, now requires doing everything but actually talking about it.

This is a rather subtle dance.  If you can’t go after the policy, you have to go after the person.  So Hagel’s old friends from his side of the aisle are torching him in an unusually pointed and personal way.  He’s been called incompetent to manage a complex organization, an anti-Semite, and someone with “temperament issues.”  Kansas Senator Pat Roberts may have worked closely with Hagel to ease embargo restrictions to benefit Midwest grain exporters, but Roberts is already on record as opposing the nomination.  Lindsay Graham went on Fox to tear into his former colleague, and Kelly Ayotte, the newly minted “third Amiga” (following the un-mourned departure of Joe Lieberman) pronounced herself “troubled.”   

But, the most intriguing criticism (and the best pivot from the real issues) is fleshed out in an   op-ed piece by Eliot Cohen, now a Professor at Johns Hopkins’s SAIS, but formerly Counselor to Condoleezza Rice, and an early advocate of the use of force in Iraq and Iran to cause regime change.  Cohen doesn’t spend much time advancing neo-con arguments. Instead, he relentlessly belittles Hagel’s service in Viet Nam, that “long-ago war” where Hagel was twice wounded in combat, and won a Silver Star.

Cohen has set up a straw man; he knows full well that Mr. Obama isn’t nominating Hagel because he served in Viet Nam.  But, by implying that Hagel’s only real qualification is that he served, he puts Hagel in the same Swift boat as, say, my late father, who was also a Sergeant (albeit in World War II.)  Dad would be amused.

Cohen’s critique is important, because it touches on a vulnerability that the GOP in general and neo-cons in particular seem to have.  Most of them, like the “experts” in “All Quiet On The Western Front” are basically armchair warriors, or what my Dad would have called “patriots with the mouth.”  Cohen is my age--just young enough to have escaped the draft, and too old for the first or second Iraq wars.  Others of his mind-set, but older, such as George Will, Newt Gingrich, Dick Cheney, and Mitt Romney, were able to engage in perfectly legal “draft avoidance” which is much like perfectly legal “tax avoidance.”

The problem, of course, is that all the back fires that the Right has lit are obscuring three central questions: The first is whether the President’s approach to the use of military power is the correct one, the second is whether he has the right to select someone who sufficiently attuned to his views, and the third is whether Hagel is truly qualified to carry them out.

As to the first question, it appears that the American public seems to agree with Mr. Obama; they are pleased with the wind-down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, leery of military involvement in Iran, and not too troubled by the use of drones to kill Al Qaeda operatives.   As to the second, we have the Senate to “advise and consent” but the general principle (pre-Obama) was that on most nominees, if they were qualified, they would be confirmed.  The unloved Rummy himself was confirmed on a voice vote.  It is the third, Hagel’s qualifications, that really counts. 

Is Chuck Hagel qualified?  I don’t know.  Bush trusted him enough to send him on a secret mission to Israel in December of 2000, to reassure then-Prime Minister Barak Ehud that, if Ehud’s government supported a Clinton-brokered peace deal, the incoming Bush Administration would support it.  I would like to hear more about that meeting, and more about Hagel’s background and views.  Presumably, that is what we have confirmation hearings for. 
That, and an opportunity for the GOP’s armchair warriors to further explore the “troubling” aspects of this non-commissioned old soldier’s service. 

Of course, they might agree with the Senator who called Hagel "one of the premier foreign policy voices" and "one of the giants in the United States Senate." 

That would be Mitch McConnell.   In 2007, which is, after all, so Before Barack.