The enigma of Chuck Hagel

World and We
Sergey Strokan is a journalist, essayist and a poet. He is also a political commentator with Russia's “Kommersant” Publishing House. Mr. Strokan hosts “Red Line”, a weekly analytical program broadcast by The Voice of Russia in New York City. He is the author of three poetry collections, a winner of the Maximilian Voloshin International Literary Award (2010) and a member of Union of Russian Writers.
The enigma of Chuck Hagel
­President Obama’s pick of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as the new US Defense Secretary, to replace the ...

­President Obama’s pick of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as the new US Defense Secretary, to replace the outgoing Leon Panetta, has caused a furor in Washington. The bipartisan ‘War Party’ pledged to fight tooth and nail to block the selection.

While President Obama digs in for a fight over Hagel’s approval, bringing the 66-year-old Vietnam War veteran and twice-decorated Purple Hearts recipient to the White House might prove to be an uphill battle, as Democrats hold only a slim majority in Senate. Leading Senate Republicans have already signaled they will vote against Hagel’s nomination. So, the question of his nomination is still up in the air, and every voice will matter.

Meanwhile, the controversy over Chuck Hagel’s appointment as the new Pentagon chief is evolving into the first political scandal of the year, coming weeks before President Obama’s swearing-in ceremony. The flurry of reports describing Hagel’s nomination as a watershed in US policy – whether one likes it or not – underscores that his supporters and opponents both have strong reasons to lock horns.

While Democrats stand by President Obama’s choice, calling it “extraordinary” and describing Chuck Hagel as "a combat veteran who still carries shrapnel in his body from his wounds” – a reminder to neocons who describe him as a dove – the Democrats’ message on Hagel seems to not be working. One of Hagel’s outspoken critics, Republican Senator David Vitter, said, “Given Chuck Hagel's statements and actions on a nuclear Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah, I think his confirmation would send exactly the wrong message to our allies and enemies alike. Israel, our strongest ally in the region, is dealing with a lot of threat and uncertainty right now; Hagel would make that even worse."  Vitter was echoed by Senator Lindsey Graham, who has already labeled Mr. Hagel as "the most antagonistic Secretary of Defense towards the State of Israel in our nation's history."

But what is this big noise all about? “Hagel’s appointment signals the end of 20 years of interventions that began with Somalia and ended with Iraq and, very soon, Afghanistan,” Douglas A. Macgregor explained in his Time magazine article ‘Hagel: A Different Kind of Defense Secretary.’ “Hagel’s appointment trumps the ideology of permanent conflict, a belief system promoted by neocons that allows politicians and generals to define failure as success while spending money without any enduring strategic framework,” Macgregor wrote.

His theory is based on an assessment of Mr. Hagel’s statements and moves, which years ago put him at odds with a large part of the US political class, which is accustomed to beating the drums of war before thinking twice – be it over Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan or beleaguered Gaza. In fact, while sitting in Senate till 2008 he was one of the few to voice skepticism over sanctions against Iran, even more – he called for a forbidden dialogue with Tehran, challenging a taboo, followed by Republican and Democratic administrations.

He also voiced reservations over President George W. Bush’s Iraq War, not sharing the enthusiasm for toppling the regime of Saddam Hussein and pointing to the enormous cost of the wars America waged on vague arguments – Hagel cannot be fooled like some political pundit with no military background.

Obviously, by selecting Hagel as his Defense Secretary, President Obama sends a clear message to the Washington establishment as well as Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu – he is not greedy to launch a war with Iran, and after pulling out from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 he has no stomach for another major military intervention and wants to refocus his attention during his second presidential term on purely domestic issues like economic growth, jobs, taxes and gun control.

At this point, Obama likely privately realizes that he has yet to prove that giving him the 2009 Nobel Peace prize was not a bad joke. After winning a second presidential term, he has four more years to try to change the image of America as a world policeman and neo-imperialist power denounced and hated by millions.

If this is really his new presidential agenda, than Chuck Hagel as the new Pentagon chief looks like a perfect choice, an ideal pick tailor-made to translate desired US policy shifts into reality.  However, all the present-day euphoria over Chuck Hagel might prove premature, if not irrelevant. 

“While recognizing that war can be necessary, [Hagel] understands — out of both personal experience and practical consequence — that war is best avoided, if possible,” former adviser to President Reagan Doug Bandow wrote in a recent Forbes magazine editorial. Upon closer inspection, Obama’s pick seems ambivalent and possibly dubious in nature. As it turns out, it is not that Hagel completely rules out war – he even recognizes that “it can be necessary!” But who is going to make that final decision, and under what circumstances? Will Hagel decide on his own? Of course not. It will be a decision made by the White House Cabinet. 

Forget about his past statements. What matters is how Hagel will build up understanding with the all-powerful Washington establishment, which will obviously resist any change – it has already proved it can effectively do this during Obama’s first term.

If so, all these rosy expectations may not come true. As the old saying goes: “Lay down with dogs and you’ll wake up with fleas.”

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.