I guess it goes to show you how limited the debate over warmaking is when politicians whose records are mostly pro-war can be portrayed as war skeptics.
That’s what is happening with Barack Obama’s new cabinet picks: Sen. John Kerry for secretary of State and former Sen. Chuck Hagel as Defense secretary. In today’s New York Times (1/9/12), Elisabeth Bumiller has a piece headlined, “For Two Nominees, Vietnam Bred Doubts on War,” where she claims:
Between them, Senator John Kerry and Chuck Hagel have five Purple Hearts for wounds suffered in Vietnam, shared a harrowing combat experience in the Mekong Delta and responded in different ways to the conflict that tore their generation apart.
But in nominating one as secretary of State and the other as Defense secretary, President Obama hopes to bring to his administration two veterans with the same sensibility about the futilities of war.
Bumiller goes on to report that Hagel and Kerry supporters say their Vietnam experiences means they “question the price of American involvement overseas.” That would make a certain kind of sense. But their actual records do very little to support this claim.
After quoting Hagel’s criticism of the ongoing Afghan War, Bumiller writes:
Like Mr. Kerry, Mr. Hagel voted for the resolution authorizing the invasion of Iraq but became an early opponent of the Bush administration’s execution of the war.
So both of them voted to authorize the Iraq War, and supported the invasion of Afghanistan. Kerry supported the Panama invasion and NATO’s war in Serbia. And during his presidential campaign in 2004 he talked about possibly increasing the number of troops in Iraq.
Hagel’s record, as I noted already, has been more supportive of U.S. warmaking than not. If anything, their records suggest they are willing to criticize U.S. wars after they’ve voted to support them. This might be in line with the White House’s thinking, but it shouldn’t be confused with an overall skepticism towards U.S. wars and their “futilities.”
Elsewhere in the paper, David Sanger argues that Kerry and Hagel would be part of a “new national security team deeply suspicious of the wisdom of American military interventions around the world.” They “bear the scars of a war that ended when the president was a teenager,” and–along with Obama’s CIA pick John Brennan–”have sounded dismissive of attempts to send thousands of troops to rewire foreign nations as wasteful and ill-conceived.”
True–except when they haven’t.
How bad has it gotten for the US antiwar movement? After the president its most prominent leaders supported in 2008 took George W. Bush’s war on terror and institutionalized it, they have been at a strategic loss, unable to kick their dogmatic, electoral-minded tactics to the point that they are now engaged in an awkward campaign to get a conservative Republican appointed to administer Barack Obama’s wars. Indeed, after getting a commander-in-chief of its own, the down-and-out antiwar movement is now angling to get its own defense secretary.
The logic behind the leftists for Chuck Hagel campaign — sometimes unstated — is not so much that he’s a great guy, but that the people attacking him are even worse. And to be fair, they’re right. Most of the people blasting the former Nebraska senator hail from the belligerent far right, primarily employed by neoconservative media outlets like the Weekly Standard and Washington Post. Their critique is that Hagel is no friend of the Jewish state, and perhaps even anti-Semitic, because he once made comments critical of its influential lobby in DC and opposed Israel’s 2006 war on Lebanon (an undeniably good thing). He’s also talked about giving diplomacy a shot with Iran, when the proper line is supposed to be “nah, fuck those guys.”
Hagel has also come under fire from military lobbyists for his stated desire to cut bloat at the Pentagon, though it’s worth remembering that Bush/Obama secretary of defense Robert Gates pledged the same thing while burning through the biggest military budgets in world history. In other words, the usual sky-is-falling crowd is making much ado about nothing with respect to a guy who, outside of a few maverick-y speeches over the years, adheres to the Washington consensus as much as the next old white guy. Their goal? Maybe a nice little war with a third-rate power and a bit larger share of the GDP. But like executives at Goldman Sachs, they know they’re going to be pretty much fine no matter who is in office.
It would be one thing to simply point this out; that yes, some of the charges against Hagel can politely be called “silly.” One can disagree about the wisdom of Israeli wars, for instance, without being a raging anti-Semite, and indeed much of the Israeli establishment would privately concede their 2006 war was a bust. And with politicians talking of slashing Social Security, you damned well better believe it’s not a gaffe to say maybe we ought to take a quick look at where half the average American’s income tax goes: the military. Such a defense might have some value.
Unfortunately, that’s not what the pro-Hagel campaign is doing. Instead, they’re billing the fight over Hagel’s nomination as a defining battle of Obama’s second term. If Hagel wins, the argument goes, AIPAC loses, opening up the foreign policy debate in Washington and increasing the possibility of peace in our time. If his nomination goes down, however, that reinforces the idea that the hawkish foreign policy consensus in Washington shall not be challenged and that even the mildest criticisms of Israel cannot be tolerated. Some even suggest that who administers the Defense Department could decide if there’s a war with Iran or not, perhaps forgetting the chain of command.
Indeed, most of Hagel’s defenders aren’t defending his occasionally heterodox views on Israel and unilateral sanctions (he’s cool with the multilateral, 500,000-dead-children-in-Iraq kind), but rather trumpeting his commitment to orthodoxy. The Center for American Progress, for instance, has released a dossier detailing “Chuck Hagel’s Pro-Israel Record,” noting his oft-stated verbal and legislative commitment to the “special relationship.” Some of his former staffers have also issued a fact sheet showing that all of Hagel’s alleged heretical views are well within the hawkish mainstream.
Further left on the spectrum, it’s not much different. The Washington-based group Just Foreign Policy, for instance, has revived Democratic rhetoric from 2004 to pitch the fight over the potential Hagel nomination in black and white terms of good and evil.
“The Obama-hating Neocon Right is trying to ‘Swift Boat’ the expected nomination of Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense,” the group states in a recent email blast to supporters. Neoconservatives have been “making up a fantasy scare story that Hagel . . . is ‘anti-Israel,’” it continues, helpfully informing us that the Hagel the neocons make out to be such a reasonable guy is indeed a fantasy. Finally, it ends with an appeal: “We cannot stand idly by as the neocons stage a coup of our foreign policy,” followed by a petition supporting Hagel’s nomination hosted by MoveOn.org sure to defeat any military coup.
In a blog, the group’s policy director, Robert Naiman, likewise pitches the battle over Hagel’s nomination in terms of Obama vs. The Warmongers. “Hagel represents the foreign policy that the majority of Americans voted for in 2008 and 2012: less war, more diplomacy,” he writes, pointing to past statements he’s made about the wisdom of a war with Iran.
Of course, the unfortunate truth is that American’s didn’t vote for “less war, more diplomacy,” as comforting as that thought may be, because they haven’t had the chance. In this past election, Obama often ran to the right of Mitt Romney, his campaign frequently suggesting the latter would not have had the guts to kill Osama bin Laden. The DNC ridiculed Romney for suggesting he’d consider the war’s legality before bombing Iran. “Romney Said He Would Talk To His Lawyers Before Deciding Whether To Use Military Force,” read the press release, as if that’s a bad thing. Obama, bomber of a half-dozen countries, never forgot to mention the “crippling” sanctions he’s imposed.
And J Street, the group that just co-sponsored a rally with AIPAC backing the Israeli state’s latest killing spree? Ask a resident of Gaza how “pro-peace” it is.
But, in order to create a sign-this-petition! narrative, one often can’t do nuance. So Naiman doesn’t. In another post, this one highlighting Hagel’s establishment support, because antiwar activists care about that sort of thing, he casually refers to former ambassador Ryan Crocker as among the “diplomacy champions and war skeptics” backing the former senator. This would be the same Ryan Crocker appointed by George W. Buish who has said “it’s simply not the case that Afghans would rather have US forces gone,” and dismissed the killing of at least 25 people in Afghanistan, including children, as “not a very big deal.”
That should give you a good idea of the obfuscation going on in the antiwar campaign for a Pentagon chief. This is a problem. If you’re going to play the role of the savvy Washington activist and get involved in the inside baseball that is fights over cabinet appointments, ostensibly to reframe the debate more than anything – we must defeat AIPAC! – you ought not go about reinforcing adherence to orthodoxy and the perceived value of establishment support and credentials. And you ought not cast as heroes of the peace movement people that really shouldn’t be. That’s actually really dangerous.
Yet, some would rather play down Hagel’s pro-war credentials for the all-important narrative. So we cast him as a staunch opponent of a war with Iran, ignoring his repeated assertions that we must “keep all options on the table” with respect to the Islamic Republic, including killing men, women and children. In a piece he coauthored with other establishment foreign policy figures, Hagel’s opposition to war amounted merely to a call to consider its costs – and its benefits.
For instance, “a U.S. attack would demonstrate the country’s credibility as an ally to other nations in the region and would derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions for several years, providing space for other, potentially longer-term solutions,” the senator and his friends wrote. “An attack would also make clear the United States’ full commitment to nonproliferation as other nations contemplate moves in that direction.” Ah, but he mentioned there could be “costs” (though none of those he mentioned were “dead people”). Such is brave, antiwar opposition in Washington.
But that’s the cynical game played in DC by some of the would-be movers-and-shakers on the outskirts of the policy conversation: cynically play down a politician’s faults to please funders, other politicians and one’s own sense of savvy self-satisfaction. It’s how the antiwar movement ended up dissolving and largely getting behind a president who more than doubled the number of troops in Afghanistan. People were presented a rosy image of a candidate who was on their side and they concluded their work was done upon his election. The same thing threatens to be the case with Chuck Hagel. Indeed, as The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg notes, “who better to sell the president’s militant Iran position than someone who comes from the realist camp?”
When I privately raised some of these concerns with Naiman, he got snooty quick, just as he did with other writers who questioned whether the quest to “defeat AIPAC” should be conducted by stressing why AIPAC should love the guy. To me, Naiman wrote that if I had concerns about the antiwar movement taking ownership of a defense secretary, “There are plenty of organizations that pursue an ultra-left, ideological purist line. Why don’t you give them your support and be happy?”
We live in an an age where ideological purity is defined as being uncomfortable with an antiwar organization throwing unequivocal support behind a conservative Republican to head the Pentagon. It’s an amazing world.
Rather than engage in the reactionary politics of supporting what one perceives to be the least-evil administrator of war, those on the antiwar left and right ought to be truth tellers. Let’s not sugar coat this: The problem isn’t just AIPAC and the neocons, but the Center for American Progress and the neoliberals. Dumbing down the reality only serves to bolster one faction of the war party. And it kills antiwar movements.
- Why are neocons so down on Chuck Hagel? (salon.com)
There’s a not-so-subtle war raging against former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a twice-wounded Vietnam veteran, who is rumored to be President Obama’s choice as Secretary of Defense. When word leaked out articles and editorials appeared in newspapers such as the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times. The Wall Street Journal has run two Op Eds—both highly critical of Hagel—and another, an evenhanded article by Peter Nicholas and Julian E. Barnes (12/21) covering the growing Republican opposition. So far, for the New York Times, it is apparently a minor and inconsequential story on the Washington scene: two articles, the second essentially irrelevant, but no editorial denouncing or supporting Hagel’s possible candidacy. Not even an Op Ed, attacking or defending Hagel’s reputation.
Mark Landler’s initial Times article on December 19 was fair enough, raising the question of whether Hagel is sufficiently supportive of Israel and whether there is in fact an Israel lobby which has the power to coerce politicians. In an interview with Aaron David Miller, a veteran American diplomat writing a book, Hagel once unfortunately mentioned the Jewish rather than Israel lobby, a mistake for which he promptly apologized, given that the lobby contains many non-Jews. But he also said, “I’m a United States senator, not an Israeli senator.”
The article went on to quote the ubiquitous Abraham Foxman of the ADL (aren’t there any other Jews available for quotes? Landler did manage to find a lesser known group called the Israel Project to quote, apparently not a Hagel backer). He also cited anonymous Jewish “leaders,” many of whom represent “pro-Israel” groups, few of whom have any paid members though they seem to present themselves as speaking for all American Jews, which by no means is the case. Landler did quote Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street, another pro-Israel group which, like the Israel Policy Forum, supports Hagel. Landler’s follow-up piece two days later dealt almost entirely with Hagel’s negative past record on gay rights.
But that’s hardly why Hagel’s been assailed with such vehemence. Yes, he has long seen the Pentagon budget as far too swollen and yes, he has called for a go-slow approach to Iran. “He has a checkered past on Israel,” Foxman told Landler. “At the least, it’s disturbing; at worst, it’s troubling.”
But the key reason why neoconservatives and American Jewish organizations who rarely if ever seriously question any Israeli policies are furious may be that Hagel dared mention out loud the words “Israel lobby” which supposedly “intimidates” politicians, editors and journalists. As a former AIPAC writer, M.J. Rosenberg, who is now viewed as a turncoat by some of the same people who condemn Hagel, put it this way: “The reason is because he dared to refer to the existence of the Israel Lobby.” Then, too, to those of Hagel’s critics who believe Israel’s interests are America’s as well, it renders him potentially anti-Israel.
Hagel does have some defenders. The New Republic’s John Judis, William Buckley’s biographer, wrote “Don’t Let Chuck Hagel’s Hardline Israel Critics Sink His Nomination. In the Atlantic, James Fallows takes aim at neoconservatives and others in “The Bogus Case Against Chuck Hagel.” The uproar caught Michael Cohen’s eye in The Guardian (12/20), writing: “…it was the self-appointed protectors of Israel who determined Hagel suspect because he finds the efforts of the pro-Israel lobby to punish any public official who diverges from the notion that Israel can do no wrong somewhat problematic.” Cohen adds that “the ‘pro-Israel’ lobby is both predominantly Jewish and intimidating to politicians is a surprise, of course, to no-one who lives inside the Beltway.”
Yet where is the Times in all this? Trembling in editorial fear or busy assigning a team of crack reporters to investigate? To date, in addition to the two articles there have been no editorial, no Op Eds, no news analyses. Is not the existence of a powerful pro-Israel pressure group newsworthy? Perhaps even a well-researched magazine piece like the one that recently carved up Oliver Stone’s book “The Untold History of the U.S.”? If the NRA, oil lobby, Cuban lobby and all the other lobbies aren’t off-limits why is the Israel lobby? How and in what forms does it operate? To what extent does it or doesn’t it play a significant role in shaping American foreign policy? Peter Beinart’s book “The Crisis of Zionism” (which didn’t receive a rave review in the Times’ Book Review) is not especially loved in many quarters (he was recently banned from speaking in Atlanta) because he denies that American Jews are no longer victims but do have power, “and that without moral vigilance, Jews will abuse power just as hideously as anyone else.” So why is the Times consistently silent about these issues?
And if the Times is absent from the conversation the same may be said about our President, who recently allowed Susan Rice to withdraw from a possible role as Hillary Clinton’s successor before withering, often unfair Republican criticism? To their credit, Nicholas and Barnes in the WSJ give ample space to Zbigniew Brzezinski who blames the President for permitting the disparagement of Hagel to mushroom. “I find that, unfortunately, a symptom of being not willing to stand up for people you want to surround yourself with. That’s not a good way to protect presidential territory.”
Nor is it a good way for the Times to protect its journalistic territory—and integrity.
Murray Polner served as editor of Present Tense for 18 years, a magazine published by the American Jewish Committee. He is the author and editor of four books about Jewish life and culture.