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Opinion: Chuck Hagel and the Necons

Senator Chuck Hagel speaks at the Forum on the Law of the Sea Convention held at the Willard Intercontinental Washington Hotel, Washington D.C, May 9, 2012. DoD Photo

Senator Chuck Hagel speaks at the Forum on the Law of the Sea Convention held at the Willard Intercontinental Washington Hotel, Washington D.C, May 9, 2012. DoD Photo

Chuck Hagel’s going over at the hands of Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday was more than an argument over political and policy differences; it was another spasm in the efforts of neoconservatives to define U.S. security policy in their own image.

Hagel, a Republican former two-term senator from Nebraska, had once been considered one of the neoconservatives’ own, at least for a while. After joining the Senate in 1997, he quickly became one of Republican Sen. John McCain’s more avid wingmen. He helped run the Arizonan’s 2000 campaign for the party’s presidential nomination. Hagel also voted for the 2002 resolution to authorize U.S. action against Iraq, the precursor to the March 2003 invasion.

But the Iraq war changed Hagel, as it did not McCain and the Republicans’ neocon core. Hagel distanced himself from many of the George W. Bush administration’s failed war policies. When Bush sought to send 30,000 extra troops there in 2007, Hagel dissented, as did the man who has nominated Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense, Barack Obama.

Now, as Obama’s nominee, Hagel found himself in the middle of a more-than-40-year war over control of U.S. military and national-security policy. The neoconservatives who fought against Presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and now Obama recognize that Hagel’s confirmation would reverse the policies of “peace through strength” that dominated the Bush and Ronald Reagan administrations.

That realization was clear from the opening statement of the panel’s ranking Republican, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma. Confirming Hagel, Inhofe said, would be “retreating from America’s unique global leadership role and shrinking the military.” That, he said, would not make America safer. “On the contrary, it will embolden our enemies, endanger our allies and provide opportunity for nations that do not share our interests to fill the global leadership vacuum we leave behind.”

Inhofe’s statement, as well as McCain’s subsequent questioning of Hagel about the Iraq surge, echoed the spiritual father of the neoconservative movement—German émigré and strategist Fritz Kraemer. Although Kraemer worked behind the scenes for decades as an influential Pentagon policy analyst, he was the man who had discovered Henry Kissinger as a young Army enlisted man during World War II and sponsored his rise to become national security adviser under Nixon. While in the Pentagon, Kraemer also shaped the policy views of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, who would decades later echo Kraemer’s beliefs as they helped launch the Iraq War.

The failure to marshal U.S. military strength and then project it around the world was a form of “provocative weakness,” Kraemer believed. It would encourage America’s enemies to constantly test it. Without a hardened resolve and willingness to use force, the United States would atrophy and invite destruction. Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz used that theory to send the nation into Iraq, where the Bush administration’s failures exposed the theory’s weaknesses and invited many of the Pentagon’s problems now.

The irony is that instead of scaring neighboring Iran, the neocons’ invasion of Iraq emboldened it. The limits of American power were exposed. Now the United States is forced to fight a constant battle to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons and menacing Israel and its neighbors.

Hagel realized that while he was a senator, and as an informal adviser to Obama since 2009. Inhofe, McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), have not. As they showed Thursday, they continue to promote the same discredited views that have weakened U.S. defense by grinding it down in an eight-year ground war in Asia.

Hagel, a Vietnam veteran as is McCain, realized the damage done there to U.S. interests. As Defense secretary, he will join with Obama to pare down the military prudently and weigh each use of military action against a more nuanced scale of national interest.

While often painfully inarticulate in his own defense, Hagel possesses the gravitas and knowledge of the Pentagon to team with Obama to make it a sharper, more potent military force. Instead of a military bloated by the waste fostered by more than 11 years of war, first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, Hagel will make it more focused.

That is why the Republican opposition to one of their own was so visceral and often hyperbolic. They know what a Hagel victory will mean—another defeat in their attempt to revive the Kraemerite doctrine. The real target of their hearings was Obama, who has beaten them twice. Just as I wrote in The Forty Years War, the neocons pick their proxy battles in a never-ending fight to push the United States into a more military and adventurous foreign policy.

Chances are they will lose again. Hagel has the votes to win confirmation. But if he fails, the fight will be a major defeat for Obama’s second-term policy agenda and a sign there’s still life in the neoconservative


  • JohnSvengali

    This writer’s thesis that the neoconservatives have misled us into war and wore out our military leaves the canyon-like logical gap that skirts the issue of strength as a deterrent to war. Instead, the writer makes a sophist case for appeasement and rationalizes as a useful idiot the reckless, benighted policies of Obama, a man who’d like to do for our national defense what he’s done for our economy: ruin it. There is no rationale to weaken our military because of the debatable prior use or misuse of military intervention by the United States. National defense preparedness is a prospective issue and never static in its needs in an ever-changing, multi-polar world.

    The injudicious use of force and intervention is not solely a neoconservative pattern of mistake. Would the writer conclude that the two World Wars we stumbled into found us well-prepared? Or were we extremely vulnerable, more so the case of World War II – because of weak national defense policies (under Roosevelt who chose domestic make-work projects over national defense, turning a blind eye to Fascism, Naziism, and Japanese militarism) that gutted our forces while our enemies built up and became emboldened?

    It is folly to buy into the utter nonsense of backing Hagel for Defense Secretary as someone who would allegedly thoughtfully pare down the United States military into what? Our defense system has a large frame and looks like a skeleton when made lean. It’s not like we are going to suddenly become isolationist and obviate the need for military defense readiness beyond our borders. It’s commendable that Hagel served in Vietnam. Great. He wasn’t a policy maker; he served as an enlisted man on the ground. That does not qualify him per se. His Armed Services committee Senate service was unremarkable and confused, bearing resemblance to the Kerry-Obama always getting it wrong pattern.

    Defense issues are not simple in their details. However, the macro defense picture is less complicated and perhaps more toward simple. The Ronald Reagan peace through strength served wonderfully. Even he erred, as in Lebanon. But Reagan didn’t repeat mistakes and held to the belief in strength first, and accordingly, our rivals respected us and our enemies feared us.

    Today, our enemies and rival, potential enemies are building both their economies and military power and we keep reducing our force size and commitment to defense. Should we mire ourselves in perpetual war? No. But when we also lose our advantage of overwhelming military strength, the world will be less safe and especially the United States. History is clear. You cannot have an effective foreign policy without a strong military. And you can’t achieve either with a moribund government-centric economy run by fools.

  • makatak62

    As the previous commenter points out with great clarity, Mr. Colodny fails to answer some fundamental questions while trying to advance his thesis. For example, was the invasion of Iraq a failure in itself or was it poorly executed (at least well into 2005)? I am of the opinion that Iranian influence could have been counteracted from the get-go had we developed a more coherent post-invasion plan, yet Mr. Colodny can only assign blame where it suits his purposes.

    Now, of course, our complete withdrawal militarily essentially means that we no longer have any influence in Iraq. Is that the fault of the neocons? The current administration took a fairly good situation (rescued from near failure by the surge) and walked away in disinterest; as it turns bad, should we be surprised? This unraveling outcome can only be blamed on the current President.

    Senator McCain has the situational understanding to realize that not every geopolitical challenge is identical and each requires a well-crafted, effective solution, combining varying degrees of diplomatic, military, and even covert engagement. President Obama’s (and by extension, Senator Hagel’s) approach lacks intellectual rigor, is disconnected from our values and ideals, and will leave us weakened and less effective in securing our vital national interests in this complex world.