The Hagel Confirmation Circus

17 Jan

Chuck Hagel has evaded a contentious battle for his confirmation by receiving the support of Senator Chuck Schumer and in exchange for this important endorsement he appeared to reverse the positions that many of his former colleagues have found unsettling. I say appeared to because, though it sure looks as if Hagel checked his principles at the door and is undergoing ‘confirmation conversion,’ both Hagel and Shumer were only going through the motions of political theater. It’s a stretch to say that Shumer had any nagging qualms about Hagel when Prime Minister Netanyahu and other members of the Israeli right aren’t in the least disquieted by him. Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin went so far as to say Israel should be “concerned, but not afraid of Hagel’s isolationist ideas.” Hagel’s no isolationist but it’s slightly surprising to hear that Israelis wouldn’t be overly bothered if he was. If the Israelis have no reservations about Hagel, Schumer certainly won’t so why the need for a confab where Hagel makes amends?

Schumer was going to ratify the president’s pick all along but had to pay lip-service to his constituents. “Schumer has to play a game,” a Democratic Hill aide told Ali Gharib, “He has to sound like he’s actually listening to those New Yorkers.” A Republican activist also confided this to Gharib: “I was told by people that this is all set up, and Schumer’s going to endorse him… He’s got the headlines he wants.” In line with this tightrope act, the two had to meet (with the outcome never in doubt), recite their scripted lines and have Hagel appropriately tweak his positions in such a way that satisfied Schumer and allow Hagel to convincingly claim later that he stuck to his guns. It was a clever bit of acting where Hagel really made no concessions and Schumer really asked for none.

To the naked eye Hagel shifted and some took it as a victory for the Israel Lobby but put his updated comments under a microscope and you’ll find Hagel hardly giving any ground. It all becomes clearer in a letter Hagel sent to Senator Barbara Boxer which subsequently garnered her support. “Regarding unilater sanctions, I have told the president I completely support his policy on Iran. I agree that with Iran’s continued rejection of diplomatic overtures, further effective sanctions both multilateral and unilateral may be necessary.” May be necessary—he didn’t say they are necessary and he implies that if Iran returns to the table unilateral sanctions would be scrapped as a tactic. Another thing missed by those who are convinced Hagel capitulated is that, yes, he completely supports the president’s policy on Iran but what he leaves unsaid is which policy—Obama’s preferred policy or the one thrust upon him by Iran hawks?

The White House has been consistently against unilateral sanctions but the threat that Israel might bomb Iran if they’re not passed has forced its hand everytime. Caving into these demands for punitive unilateral sanctions has given the impression that the administration is hawkish on Iran but its veriest sympathies lie with multilateralism and speedily reaching a deal so the U.S. can “re-balance” towards East Asia. We witness the administration’s ongoing dislike for these measures when they invariably work to water them down, turning them into ‘voodoo sanctions.’ It has been a longstanding position of Obama’s–he favored tough multilateral sanctions coupled with principled diplomacy during his first campaign—and it’s a position virtually identical to Hagel’s. The two similar outlooks are to be expected, for ever since his arrival in the Senate Obama was influenced by Hagel.

“Hagel and Lugar, both foreign-policy realists with an appreciation for international cooperation, became two of Obama’s closest colleagues and mentors in the Senate,” writes Daniel Klaidman. It would be interesting to find out the degree to which Obama was molded by the “wonkfests” he had with the two former senators but he was already ideologically quite close to Hagel at the outset of the Iraq war.  Klaidman reminds us that Obama at the time “was sounding many of the same notes as Hagel. Obama didn’t oppose all wars but he opposed dumb wars, he said in a speech in October 2002: “What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt … by weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives and in hardships borne.” Obama is essentially echoing Hagel’s warning about the reckless entry into Iraq, the latter telling Newsweek in 2002:

“It’s interesting to me that many of those who want to rush the country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don’t know anything about war. They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off.”

Suffice it to say, the president and his secretary of defense-designate are on the same wavelength and have been since Hagel took Obama under his wing. Considering Obama was shaped by Hagel and that–despite public posturing–he has been dovish on Iran from the start, the nominee saying that he agrees with Obama’s approach means he’s agreeing with his own and therefore hasn’t knuckled under the pressure to obtain easy senate votes and ensure a smooth confirmation process. Hagel is merely playing his part in the political pantomime just as Obama has to every day by approving unilateral sanctions and maintaining that the military option is on the table. But both know that the tide has turned; both know that “we’ve got to understand great-power limitations” as Hagel has said; both know it’s time for a deal with Iran. Don’t be deceived–no matter what hawkish piffle you hear from either of them, Hagel and  Obama will follow their internationalist instincts and end up  accomplishing peace.

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