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White House

The Neocons vs. Chuck Hagel

The attacks on the Defense nominee reflect an old struggle—and a philosophy that’s in eclipse.

(AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)()

photo of Michael Hirsh
January 9, 2013

Among the chicken hawks of Washington, William Kristol is the bantam rooster. Though Kristol never served in the military, for almost two decades the editor of The Weekly Standard has been the true brains behind the neoconservative movement, advocating the aggressive projection of U.S. military might around the globe.

And now Kristol is leading the neoconservative fight against Chuck Hagel, the Defense secretary nominee whose policy record amounts to a living rebuttal of Kristol’s worldview. In a recent "special editorial" in his magazine, Kristol delivered the following diatribe against the former Nebraska senator:

"His backers can cite no significant legislation for which Hagel was responsible in his two terms in the Senate. They can quote no memorable speeches that Hagel delivered and can cite no profound passages from the book he authored. They can summarize no perceptive Hagelian analysis of defense or foreign policy, and can appeal to no acts of management or leadership by the man they'd have as our next secretary of defense.”

 

It was a striking critique—as notable for what it left out as it was for the personal attack on Hagel. Other critics of Hagel, such as Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., have at least acknowledged his distinguished combat service in Vietnam. But Kristol simply dismissed Hagel as a candidate with a “general lack of distinction." It’s yet more evidence of what Kristol’s own critics—who have included Hagel in the past—have often said about him: that war has always been an abstraction to him. And indeed, if you monitor Kristol’s calm advocacy of force over the years—and he’s been very consistent in this—he has appeared unflustered by the toll of war.

Kristol doesn’t come off very well either if one looks at the actual policy recommendations of both men. The well-spoken neocon has clearly made some major errors of judgment, especially in comparison with what turned out to be, in truth, an impressively “perceptive Hagelian analysis” about the Iraq war. While Kristol was agitating for war in the early 2000s and saying things like, "I think we'll be vindicated when we discover the weapons of mass destruction and when we liberate the people of Iraq" (March 5, 2003), Hagel was warning presciently that there was no evidence of Saddam's links to al-Qaida, that his possession of WMD was in doubt, and that America was in danger of strategic overreach, or taking on too much at one time, and engendering Arab hatred.

"Many of those who want to rush this country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don't know anything about war," Hagel told me in the summer of 2002. "They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off." 

But even more important than the unmistakable fact that Hagel was mostly right about the hazards of launching a new war, and Kristol was mostly wrong, is this question: Isn’t the entire concept of neoconservatism well past its prime? Neoconservatism was essentially a rebirth of Reaganism, a movement that Kristol and his coauthor, Robert Kagan, single-handedly launched with a 1996 article in Foreign Affairs titled “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy." It emerged out of the hubris of the post-Cold War era. In that heady time, when America became the lone superpower, the neocons sought to achieve a robust marriage of power and principle. They wanted to fuse what they saw as America’s precision-guided ability to change regimes at will with an evangelical belief that the only right regime is democracy. The neocons believed that, thanks to America’s unrivaled might, this was the moment in history to complete the global transformation begun by Reagan—who famously declared in 1982 that tyranny was destined for the ash heap of history—and left unfinished after the Cold War. After 9/11, they simply applied this template to the notion that a tyrant like Saddam was the natural ally of an “Islamo-fascist” group like al-Qaida and could supply it with WMD. The neocons said that America could do it all: destroy al-Qaida and Saddam's tyranny at the same time.

We have seen the results of this philosophy: catastrophic overreach, just as Hagel warned. America has now suffered two terrible, draining wars. Contrary to neocon confidence about “walking and chewing gum at the same time,” we now know that America couldn’t. We know that the first, necessary war, in Afghanistan, suffered because of the diversion to the second (and unnecessary) one in Iraq, just as Hagel warned. We know that, rather than reasserting U.S. power, the neocons achieved the opposite: They succeeded only in exposing our vulnerabilities to the world by creating generations of IED-savvy insurgents and generating more terrorists than existed before. The neocons wanted to put an end to the “Vietnam syndrome” of self-doubt about the use of force. Instead they left us with an “Iraq syndrome” that makes it likely that no U.S. president, Democrat or Republican, will ever rush off to forcibly change regimes again. And as far as the spread of democracy in the Arab world goes, most Middle East experts agree that the rise of grassroots democratic movements during the “Arab Spring” was unrelated to the U.S. intervention in Iraq. The war was very likely for naught.

That’s why this is, very possibly, Chuck Hagel’s time, and why Kristol’s may well have passed.

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