The neoconservative smear campaign against former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel has caused a crop of liberals and progressives to jump to his defense. But others further on the left have questioned whether those interested in a new U.S. policy towards the Middle East should be looking to Hagel to deliver one.
This site (myself included) has joined with a host of establishment figures and other progressives to defend Hagel from the smear peddlers, who have taken to labeling Hagel as an "anti-Semite" because of his frank talk about the Israel lobby. But we should take a look at what two other sharp analysts--Max Ajl and Charles Davis--have written on Hagel. They make important contributions to the debate, with their articles serving as a reminder that the Hagel nomination is more symbolic than anything and that U.S. policy is not going to change radically just because a more heterodox Defense Secretary is in. It'll take a lot more than that.
First, here's Davis writing on his blog:
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.
Ajl, a contributing editor at the excellent leftist magazine Jacobin, has a longer piece up at Jadaliyya titled "Why Chuck Hagel Is Irrelevant." He writes:
The latest non-scandal scandalizing the American commentariat is whether Barack Obama will be able to nominate former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as his new Secretary of Defense. The narrative is that the Zionist lobby is eager to scuttle Hagel’s nomination because he has uttered one too many words “critical” of Israel, and displayed too many sentiments suspected of being contrary to the agenda of the lobby: namely, destroying Iran.
The narrative is true enough.
That the lobby does not want Hagel is clear, and his nomination would be a defeat for the lobby’s right wing.
Still, it is barely a scandal, except in the sense that it is scandalous how narrow the parameters of debate are in this country such that leftists think that an aggressive nationalist like Hagel merits their defense.
There are a few reasons for that.
First, Hagel’s policy prescriptions for dealing with Iran are, in fact, American policy. US policymakers have been huffing and puffing about a US attack on Iran for over a decade – without producing that attack. They are not the only ones. While the Israeli political class itinerantly threatens Iran, its defense intelligentsia warns against it. So does the Pentagon and the US State Department. At the military level, there is no direct war on Iran, and the absence of a military attack against Iran is not a policy secured by the dominance of responsible and beleaguered technocrats fending off the neocons’ pressure.
It is simply the consensual policy amongst most of the Washington elite.
The second element of American policy against Iran is clear, and it is one that Hagel himself has made clear: the slow-motion erosion of the Iranian economy and society. And that policy is going ahead fine. As Hagel has observed, “We do have some rather significant evidence that sanctions are working.”
And after going through the true sources of the U.S.-Iran conflict, Ajl pours cold water on the notion that Hagel's willingness to talk to Hamas is a radical departure that the left should celebrate:
Still others defend the Hagel nomination through a fixation on his openness to discussions with Hamas. What this perspective misses is that a push for dialogue with Hamas has been the position of “liberal” Beltway think-tanks for some time. It is premised on the assumption that through dialogue, the US will be able to tame, contain, and turn Hamas, either making it serve a similar function as the Egyptian or Syrian Muslim Brotherhoods, enfolded into a Gulf-supported Sunni crescent, or pushing it into “national reconciliation” with Fateh.
Little good will come of this nomination.
And without question, sanctions and occupation will continue apace.
This makes it unfortunate that the campaign to defend Hagel has gathered support not merely from realist analysts like [Steve] Walt, but by many of a more progressive bent, some of whom are happy that the J Street lobby group – nearly indistinguishable from AIPAC – is defending Hagel’s candidacy.
Indeed, the support of J Street ought to be a red flare clarifying Hagel’s projected role.
Instead, it has somehow convinced some that he will tamp down the imperial role in the region, or that his appointment will move US foreign policy to the left. That seems unlikely, if not delusory. The question is minute divergences of strategy within a broader vision of domination of the region – a reflection of inter-elite bickering over the best way to cripple Iran and impose surrender terms on the Palestinian people.
The potential nomination of Hagel is meaningful only if one naturalizes the social and political landscape and assumes that the best which can be hoped for is an ever-so-slightly gentler empire.
And so the hubbub over Hagel is a squabble which tells us only a little about internal disagreements within foreign policy circles, but much about the widespread tendency not merely to confuse the spectacle of politics for politics itself, but also to foreclose entirely the possibility of meaningful change.