“Why, I in this weak piping time of peace
Have no delight to pass away the time,
Unless to spy my shadow in the sun
And descant on mine own deformity.”
The unearthing of King Richard III’s bones from a parking lot in Leicester, England, ranks as one of the most titillating archaeological discoveries ever, especially considering the super-cool way it was confirmed: with DNA fingerprinting from a male descendant of his sister Anne. But the find was also a reminder that history is a fluid thing, and it's invariably the winning side that writes it. Sure, now we can say these are King Richard's bones, curved spine and all, but we still know little else about him. The victorious Tudors killed King Richard in 1485—apparently with an ax through the head at the Battle of Bosworth Field—and then induced a first-rate spinmeister, William Shakespeare, to paint him as one of history’s worst villains. What we don't know is whether that is true.
That got me to thinking: Which history are we to believe coming out of last week’s brutal Chuck Hagel hearing, and which will dominate in the next four years? Because this is what the current conflict over America’s next Defense secretary—and the future direction of the administration’s foreign policy—is really about: two different readings of history. It is what Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., an erstwhile Hagel friend who turned into a caustic critic, was referring to when he said that "fundamental” differences remained between him and President Obama's nominee to run the Pentagon.
On one side are fierce Hagel critics such as McCain and Bill Kristol, Washington's neocon-in-chief, who refuse to back down from their belief that the Iraq invasion of nearly a decade ago was just, and who continue to support the aggressive projection of U.S. military power abroad, especially in Syria. On the other side are Obama, Hagel, and others who warned—quite presciently—of the pitfalls of that policy, and who are running away from military intervention abroad at full speed, even as they ratchet up the "small footprint" use of drones.
And now the neocon hawks fear that, like Shakespeare’s Richard III, there will be no place for them at all in Obama's "weak, piping time of peace." It is truly the winter of their discontent.
Hagel’s most dogged enemies, particularly Kristol, used the nominee’s startlingly weak performance at last week’s confirmation hearing to attack him, yet again, as incompetent. "Has there ever been a more embarrassing confirmation hearing than Hagel’s for a major Cabinet position? For a minor Cabinet position? For a subcabinet position? We don’t know of one," Kristol wrote in his neoconservative magazine, The Weekly Standard, this week. Kristol then attacked Obama and Democrats for being less than "profiles in courage" for supporting him: "Are liberals and Democrats willing to sell their souls for ... Chuck Hagel?"
And yet, as I have written, Hagel's policy views are invariably well-thought-out, and he himself qualifies as quite a profile in courage when it comes to the anti-Iraq war side of history. Obama’s famous dismissal of the Iraq invasion as a “dumb” war, and Hagel’s distinguished record of defiance toward his own party to oppose the war, amount to a living refutation of McCain’s and Kristol’s entire worldview. A decade ago, McCain and Kristol were leading hawks who claimed that Saddam Hussein had connections with al-Qaida and that weapons of mass destruction would certainly be found, and that George W. Bush could do it all and still preside over a strong economy. While Kristol was agitating for war 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 accurately that there was no evidence of Saddam's links to al-Qaida, that his possession of WMD were in doubt, and that America was in danger of strategic overreach and enraging the Arab world.
Obama, meanwhile, overcame Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 campaign partly on the strength of his opposition to the Iraq war.
Now things are likely to get much worse for the hawks in the second Obama term. First, despite Kristol’s fulminations, Hagel is highly likely to be confirmed. Second, government sources tell me that one reason that John Brennan took the CIA job is that he wants to ease the agency out of the drone business. Hagel, based on his own worldview and his deep concerns about the moral use of U.S. power and the bad precedents that can be set by its misuse, is likely to also want to ratchet back or at least to exercise more caution about the drone attacks. A growing number of critics, including former President Carter, say the drone program has badly undermined America’s moral position, and it supplies a dangerous precedent to other nations that are developing their own drone programs, in particular China and Russia, and could cite Washington's policy to justify, say, political assassinations.
So get ready for the Hagel era, folks. “Grim-visaged war hath smoothed his wrinkled front,” as King Richard complained. It’s not going to be a good time to be a neocon or a latter-day Richard III.