Hagel, the Right, and the Fight for American Power

by Jon Western

What the confirmation process for US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel tells us about the fight for the soul of the Republican Party.

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The tumultuous confirmation process of America’s new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel revealed a great deal about the current state of US politics, putting to rest any doubts that the era of bipartisan consensus on American internationalism is over.  Hagel’s confirmation reflected the intensity of  political polarization, and the degree to which the Republican Party has completely embraced an uncompromising and aggressive conception of America’s role and place in the world.  Throughout the confirmation process, the Republican Party establishment, including the entire cohort of Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, accused Hagel of being wrong and reckless at best, and anti-semitic and anti-American at worst.  Hagel, a former moderate Republican Senator from Nebraska, was eventually confirmed but with only four of the votes in favor cast by Republicans.   

Hagel came under fire for his critical comments on the use and utility of force for complex foreign policy projects; for his position on the Iraq War; for his questioning of Israeli policy and America’s tendency to back it unconditionally; and for his publicly stated concerns about overseas military commitments.    The vehemence of the opposition from former colleagues and friends was striking.  In one notable exchange, Senator John McCain grew visibly angry and demanded Hagel give a simple yes or no answer on whether or not the Iraq surge –a policy that ultimately cost more than 1,000 American and untold Iraqi lives -- was a success. Texas Senator Ted Cruz  launched bizarre, Joseph McCarthy-style innuendo , pondering who might have paid for Hagel’s public speeches, alleging (erroneously) ties between Hagel and the non-existent “Friends of Hamas.” 

It was an ugly display, all the more striking in that Hagel’s views were once a mainstay of the Republican Party.  Three decades ago, President Ronald Reagan openly condemned Israeli policies in Lebanon and publicly chastised the Israeli government for allowing expansion of settlements in the West Bank.  He withdrew from Lebanon following the 1983 terrorist attack on the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, rather than risk being engulfed, so soon after the end of America’s military involvement in Vietnam, in another quagmire.  Reagan’s successor, George H.W. Bush, also had strained relations with Israel throughout his administration.  He too refused to be sucked into more extreme policy options, in this case  refusing to make regime change in Iraq an objective of Operation Desert Storm – especially in the absence of United Nations support and for fear of unforeseen internal and regional consequences. 

Today, the Republican Party has abandoned its pragmatic, internationalist wing. There is no room for the likes of James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, or George H.W. Bush.  The current Republican Party sees any plausible threat as a probable threat, subscribes to a fundamental faith in the utility and efficacy of force, generally dismisses diplomacy as naïve, embraces both preventive war and torture, and not only shuns but disdains multilateral cooperation.   

Clearly the events of 9/11 contributed in part to this shift.  But much of the polarization began in the preceding decade.  According to American political scientists Peter Trubowitz and Charles Kupchan, post-Cold War unipolarity loosened the “political discipline” that had underpinned the rough Cold War consensus on liberal internationalism, giving America more latitude for action.    This coincided with a series of domestic political developments.  Republicans had controlled the White House for 20 of the 24 years prior to Bill Clinton’s election to the Presidency in 1992.  With Clinton sitting in the Oval Office, and the Republicans now the official opposition, the party’s foreign policy establishment launched a series of relentless attacks on Clinton’s foreign policy as feckless and vacillating.   In particular, Republicans accused Clinton of being soft on national security, weakening the American military, and enamored of multilateral institutions at the expense of American interests.  

Generational change since the mid-1990s led to a new, more politically polarized and uncompromising elite in Congress – well after the pragmatic internationalists of the first Bush administration had left.  Fewer than 30 of the current 435 Members of the U.S. House and only 13 of the 100 U.S. Senators held office prior to 1992.  The formative foreign policy experience for these members of Congress has been the era of Republican opposition to the Clinton administration and the post-9/11 era.  

Polarization also means that most congressional districts are simply not competitive.  In 2012, 85% of the House Members won their districts by 10 percentage points or more.  A majority of the Republican incumbents who lost in 2012 did so in primary bids to more extreme candidates from their own party, rather than to Democrats in the general election. In such a polarized environment, in other words, there are powerful political incentives to move from the center to the extremes.

One might have thought the excesses of the George W. Bush administration would have tempered this shift, inspiring a return to pragmatism.  It didn’t.  The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were much longer and more costly than the Bush administration had predicted adding, when coupled with tax cutting measures and the wider war on terror, more than US$5 trillion to the U.S. debt.  By the end of his administration, President Bush’s popular approval had sunk below 30% with well over a majority concluding that the war in Iraq had been a mistake.    President Barak Obama’s relatively easy victory in 2008 over Senator John McCain suggested a sober retreat from the hardline posturing of the Republicans was in the offering.  Instead, hardliners regrouped and doubled down on their positions.  

Republican House Members and Senators, as well as think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, and others that support them, have fought aggressively to write and claim the history and legacy of the Iraq War, and to defend the utility of American power and force. For them, the war was not a problem in concept – regime change -- but one of implementation – insufficient troop levels.  They argue the surge corrected that, hence, McCain’s demand for a simple yes or no statement from Hagel.   They also argue that the Arab Spring is a vindication of the Iraq War in that it emboldened new political actors to overthrow corrupt, autocratic rulers.   Republicans, once again the political opposition, are mobilizing around the core concepts of American power, the utility of force, and the need for the United States to aggressively confront Iran, North Korea, and others. 

The Republican Party of today is comprised of a new generation of leaders, supported by a comprehensive network of think tanks, research institutes, and funding networks who all believe that American power must be used in order to be preserved.  They believe the relative decline of the United States is tied to specific policies: of those who question whether or not the U.S. can and should maintain primacy; and of those who look to multilateral institutions to help govern international politics.  They believe that when force does not work, it is not because of the limits of force, but because of the limits of political will and the lack of sufficient commitment to victory.  

This is why Chuck Hagel’s confirmation was so contested.  For the Republicans, it was a fight for the legacy of Iraq, it was a fight to constrain President Obama, and it was a fight to consolidate the soul of the Party.   It also means that the future is likely to be more polarized, not less.  This may just be the beginning.

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About the Author: Jon Western is Five College Professor of International Relations at Mount Holyoke College in Massachussetts. He served in the U.S. Department of State during the Clinton Administration, and is the author of Selling Intervention and War: The Presidency, the Media, and the American Public (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).

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