Hagel’s legislative record belies his potential role as bit player on the stage of the American empire, unlikely to wield the kind of influence suggested by the controversy over his nomination.
Ideological elements of both the Left and the Right have inflated the nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense to symbolize far more than he can possibly achieve in office, good or bad. The controversy over his nomination is based on a handful of his comments and valedictory Senate addresses. His actual legislative record is a lot thinner. From my time as a Senate staffer, I do not remember any significant legislation he was personally responsible for, nor did he involve himself to any great extent in floor debates on authorization or appropriation bills having to do with national security.
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His supposedly inflammatory statements on Iraq, in particular, are after-the-fact criticisms of Bush administration policy that belie his actual legislative behavior when it counted. In October 2002, after the debate on the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq, he dutifully lined up to vote in its favor like all but one of his GOP colleagues. Perhaps Hagel felt the Bush administration had deceived him with faked evidence, as many another Senator has claimed thereafter. But as the casualties piled up, he was not quick to join critics of the war – at least not until March 2007, four years after the invasion, when Hagel supported legislation to begin withdrawing from Iraq in 120 days. That was already after the 2006 electoral debacle for the GOP, and at the point when most thinking people had long since sought an exit strategy. He also voted for the Patriot Act that progressives and libertarians alike abhor, and for the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts which, along with the Iraq war, have left us in our present fiscal hole.
The controversy over Hagel’s opinions about Israel and Iran is probably contrived, not so much to derail his nomination, but simply to rough him up a bit, so that when and if he becomes Secretary of Defense, he will likely be very circumspect about making any pronouncements about either country that deviates from the party line.
Exposing his record isn’t meant to denigrate Hagel as a person – he did resign as deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration in 1982 over a matter of principle. And he saw the elephant in Vietnam, which elevates him far above most of the chickenhawks who attack him. But when the stakes are truly high, as they are in the maintenance of the status quo for the Pentagon, and all the enormous cash flows that go with it, it takes a person of extraordinary qualities to resist being assimilated by the military-industrial-congressional complex. Since the end of the Second World War, the National Security State has co-opted and de-fanged whichever potentially reformist public figures had managed to survive the winnowing process that excludes the vast majority of them from ever being considered for positions of power.
Harry Truman made his bones as a senator in World War II presiding over the Truman Committee, exposing waste fraud and abuse in military contracts – but he ended up, as president, adopting NSC 68, a planning document recommending a grotesquely hypertrophied garrison state that became a perpetual bonanza for military contractors. For good measure, he also ordered, with the stroke of his pen, the unjust and grossly unconstitutional Loyalty Program, which destroyed far more reputations than did Joseph McCarthy’s later misuse of senatorial investigatory power. But all the while, Truman was attacked from the Right for being soft on defense against the “threat,” setting a pattern for the following 60 years. Since Truman’s presidency, the National Security State has stabilized and consolidated around what has amounted to two right-wing parties.
John F. Kennedy was skeptical of the claims of the military, but his concrete actions, as opposed to his private comments, furthered the goals of the military-industrial-congressional complex. He may well have distrusted the military and the CIA for getting talked into the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, but he continued the folly by authorizing Operation Mongoose – an equally idiotic program to subvert Cuba that went far afield of his original intentions. Lyndon Johnson knew full well that Vietnam was going to demolish his pride and joy, the Great Society – but he went ahead and let Vietnam destroy it anyway, for transparently shortsighted tactical political reasons. He rationalized his actions ex post facto in a self-pitying mock confession to Doris Kearns Goodwin to the effect that he was “bound to be crucified either way I moved.”
Jimmy Carter is now almost universally viewed as a pacifist and a peacenik, but he let his national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski engineer provocations in Afghanistan in 1979 to lure the Soviets to invade the country, as Brzezinski bragged to Nouvel Observateur in 1998. That was surely the most consequential national security decision of the last 40 years – and the most disastrous, because it created both al-Qaeda and a perpetual series of wars in the Islamic regions. He also invoked the Carter Doctrine that bound us for eternity to protect by military force every feudal Middle Eastern satrapy that happened to have oil. Yet Carter is forever branded as a peacenik wimp in the national memory.
What has all this to do with Chuck Hagel? Just this: Does anyone think that Hagel, as a future subordinate of a president who orders drone strikes, authorized the Afghanistan surge and claims the power to be judge, jury and executioner of US citizens, will meaningfully alter the course of the US National Security State? More likely, the Pentagon bureaucracy will isolate him, play to his reported demand for sycophancy by his staffers when he was a Senator, and send him on an endless round of speeches and inspections. Meanwhile, the Joint Staff will run the show.
In the long run, inevitable economic and social forces will bring a halt to Pax Americana; the likelihood of a bit player like Chuck Hagel having any influence is diminishingly small.