Is Chuck Hagel “out of the mainstream”? That seems to be the crucial question surrounding Hagel’s nomination as Defense Secretary. Predictably, Bill Kristol says “yes” and Pat Buchanan says “no.” And as a result, Kristol seriously opposes Hagel’s nomination, while Buchanan strongly supports it.
Kristol and Buchanan are both right, and they’re both wrong, albeit for different reasons than either man would like to admit.
Hagel is, indeed, well within the mainstream of establishmentarian defense and foreign policy thinking, and that’s precisely the problem: On the major defense and foreign policy challenges that confront us today — Iran, Egypt, the Middle East, North Africa, failed and failing states, radical Islam, Chinese nationalism, et al. — the establishment is dangerously wrong and out of touch. And so, if Hagel is the establishment’s standard-bearer — which he is — then it makes perfect sense to oppose his nomination.
The establishment, for instance, thinks that the United States ought to be “even-handed” in the Middle East, and not favor either Israel or the Palestinians. It thinks that the greatest threat to peace and stability in the Middle East is not a nuclear Iran, but a militarily assertive Israel. And it thinks that it’s time for America to show benign neglect toward the rest of the world, and to engage, finally, in “nation-building here at home.”
Thus, say establishment voices (such as Hagel’s), it’s time to “pare down” the Pentagon and scale back our defense posture. Let us “pivot toward Asia,” negotiate with our enemies (the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, et al.), and “lead from behind.”
Kristol to the contrary notwithstanding, there is nothing “radical” or “extreme” about these ideas. They represent perfectly acceptable, “mainstream” thinking in America today. Why, this is what we’ve been hearing from President Obama and his team for the past four years. And similar sentiments have been echoed by members of Congress, the Council on Foreign Relations, and various and sundry defense and foreign policy “experts” in New York and Washington.
Why, then, the hullabaloo over Hagel? Because there has always been a strong, dissenting voice within the establishment, a voice that has argued for the promotion of American values on the world stage, backed up by an assertive U.S. defense and foreign policy.
Ronald Reagan championed this dissenting school of thought (dubbed “neoconservative”) during the latter years of the Cold War. His policy was not to contain or accommodate communism, but instead, to roll it back.
“My idea of American policy toward the Soviet Union is simple,” Reagan said. “We win and they lose.”
Thus Reagan increased military spending; invaded Grenada; armed rebel groups in Angola, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua; initiated a missile defense program; provided significant material support to Solidarity and the Polish labor unions; and resumed diplomatic relations with the Vatican or Holy See.
Of course, these policies frightened the establishment, which viewed Reagan as a reckless warmonger. But Reagan was right, and history bore him out. The Soviet empire dissolved; the Berlin Wall collapsed; and the Cold War was won.
Yet, could you imagine the howls of outrage from elite, “mainstream” opinion were a leading American politician to advocate a similar policy of engagement toward the Middle East, North Africa and radical Islam? Why, such a politician would be denounced as a reckless warmonger!
But it’s far from clear why we should defer to an establishment that has consistently proven itself to be myopic, shortsighted and wrong.
The establishment, for instance, failed utterly to anticipate September 11, 2001; and it failed to anticipate the very different military capabilities required for prolonged counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not one Pentagon war plan in the 1980s or ’90s included Afghanistan as a potential area of operation for the U.S. military, says the former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright. And now that Afghanistan and the world have been shown to be more complex and more challenging than previously thought, the establishment wants to bug out and go home — and oh yeah, pressure Israel to boot.
Sorry, but that won’t do. The world today is too small, and America too internationally enmeshed and dependent, for us to retreat back to “fortress America.” And Israel, far from being a problem, is instead our only reliable and steadfast ally in the Middle East.
“What happens halfway around the world directly impacts virtually every aspect of our life,” explains Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Sure, there may be problems with American leadership on the world stage, but these problems are dwarfed by far by the lack of American leadership. Yet, I’m afraid that the establishment doesn’t understand this — it never has.
The problem with Hagel, then, is not that he’s “radical” or “outside of the mainstream.” (If only that were true!) The problem is that he’s utterly conventional and not nearly radical enough. And that’s more than sufficient reason to oppose his nomination.