Hagel was not only one of the most trenchant (if slightly belated) critics of the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. He also used his time in the Senate to deliver more withering and fundamental critiques of the conduct of U.S. foreign policy than one was likely to hear from Democrats during that era. The underlying theme of that criticism is that the United States’ casual recourse to violence, its ready embrace of war as an antidote to international dilemmas (many of its own making), and its refusal to respect the international institutions and norms it uses to police the behaviour of others, undermine our credibility and our security.
The subject of a sympathetic New Yorker profile in 2008, Hegel was described as “an ardent internationalist...who believes that military force should be the last tool of statecraft”. He castigated the Bush administration for its view of “Congress as an appendage, a nuisance”. “We were not a co-equal branch of government”, he mused about an acquiescent Congress during the Bush years, “we were just kind of this afterthought to the President, and whatever he tells us to do, we kind of docilely go along”.
Hegel also attacked the idea of a war on terror, referencing the need to address the underlying global “problems we’ve got with poverty, proliferation, terrorism, wars—when the largest segments of society in the world today are not at the table”.
He attacked the surge in Iraq as a wasteful, pointless exercise which undermined our interests because it involved us in a pointless war of aggression and made no effort to address the degraded political situation in Iraq. “If we frame [Iraq] as win or lose”, he said at the time, “we’ll be there forever”. Of Afghanistan: “there is no military solution, so we have to be very careful that somehow we don’t just ricochet out of Iraq into Afghanistan”.
These are hardly radical critiques of the misuse and immorality of U.S. power, or of the way that we view our role in the world. Many members of the public would likely recognise that their interests are more closely aligned with other working class members of the global public than with American plutocrats. They would likely feel frustrated with the failure of their representatives to check the executive branch’s abuse of military power. They would undoubtedly feel frustrated with the undeclared war on terror which will, if we don’t come to our senses, continue down the generations. They would certainly recognise the dismal failure of our pointless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And yet as uncontroversial as many of the public would find Hagel’s views, they nonetheless form a striking contrast with the national security consensus in our country.
I have no problem with most of Hagel’s utterances. I’m just morbidly curious as to whether or how he will stand by their moral and philosophical underpinnings when he is serving an administration which bears an eerie resemblance to its predecessor, of which he was such a trenchant and consistent critic. Like Bush, Obama has invoked executive privileges in the service of an immoral foreign policy. His administration has authored murder memos which they decline to make public. They draw up kill lists with which to persecute un-declared, un-debated, and ill-defined attacks in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen. The President pretends that wars of aggression waged by drones are not real conflicts, thereby circumventing legislative oversight.
Abandoning all pretence at funding economic development, promoting democracy, or engaging with civil society in Afghanistan, President Obama has decided that a military solution is the only solution in that country. Like most previous administrations, Obama’s commitment to a peace process in the Middle East has been sporadic, and his support of Israeli colonialism has barely flickered.
So what role can Hagel possibly serve in such an administration?
On the one hand, it is conceivable that he has abandoned his earlier views. It is also possible that the lure of power has proven too great, and that Hagel (who has worked for Chevron, supported provisions of the Patriot Act, and is no progressive) simply wants to be at the heart of power. Finally, it might be the case that Hagel hopes to be able to influence the administration from inside, a misplaced view given the extent to which the White House, rather than cabinet secretaries, shapes U.S. international policy.
So Hagel is more political window-dressing than anything else. A sop to liberals, who will appreciate his past criticisms, but assume—in their hypocrisy—that he won’t rock the administration’s boat. A nod to the media, which can debate the extent to which this is a bipartisan appointment that exhibits Obama’s willingness to cooperate with Republicans. And a finger in the eye to Hagel’s own party, which has long, in its “with us or against us” mentality, viewed him as a traitor.
The one thing he almost certainly will not be is a loud, public voice criticising the unholy national security consensus that governs our interactions with other peoples and other countries around the world.