Chuck Hagel: The Libertarian Case For Obama's Pentagon Pick


With the recommendations of both President Obama and Colin Powell at his side, former Republican Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel should feel confident that he will be confirmed by the Senate as the next secretary of defense. While Hagel represents a welcomed foreign policy shift, there are multiple factors that suggest that both Hagel's supporters and opponents overstate the impact his confirmation would have.

In a recent post at the libertarian Cato blog, Christopher A. Preble gives his full endorsement of Hagel. Although Hagel voted for the Iraq war, argues Preble, he has admitted this error in judgement. Hagel would represent a restraint on Washington's interventionist tendencies, believes in engagement with the rest of the world, and supports free trade.

For the many of us — libertarians and non-libertarians alike — sick of perpetual war, open-ended military interventions, and increasing military budgets, Hagel would appear to be the foreign policy realist that Washington desperately needs. Hagel is "a decorated Vietnam war veteran, [who] understands war, and doesn’t take it lightly," concludes Preble.

But before libertarians and non-interventionists should cheer on a possible Secretary of Defense Hagel, the first rule of libertarianism and government should be applied — always be skeptical of politicians, especially the higher up the ladder you go.

While Hagel's resume and past words suggest that he is serious about restraining U.S. military power abroad, a closer look at Hagel's background reveals that he is very intimately intertwined in the establishment financial and military industries. While virtually unreported on by the media, Hagel serves on the Board of Directors of Chevron and Zurich's Holding Company, the Advisory Board of Deutsche Bank America, and is a Senior Advisor to Gallup. These are just a few of the mega-multinationals Hagel is connected to.

In other words, if confirmed, Hagel would have many, many conflicts of interests in restraining a Pentagon, policy of military interventionism, and levels of military spending that corporations like the many that Hagel represents benefit from. Call me a cynic, but it is nearly impossible to become Senator, earn prestige, and be nominated as Secretary of Defense without a willingness to sell your soul up the greasy totem pole of government power.

But then again, maybe I am too harsh on Hagel. No one would ever go broke underestimating the corruption of politicians and government officials, but perhaps it is my soft spot and desperation for restraining U.S. foreign policy that makes a possible Hagel nomination and confirmation so enticing.

After all, he has many positive foreign policy attributes going for him. With the exception of former Congressman Ron Paul, it's hard to think of any other public official who has gone out of his way to stand up to the bullying of the documented and systematic influence of the Israel lobby on American foreign politiy. It is a truly telling sign that to publicly declare loyalty to America rather than the interests of a foreign government is seen as some type of scandal, especially when that foreign government has spied on us, stolen nuclear secrets, and committed acts of war against us.

Hagel "believes that you do not need to negotiate with your friends, but rather with your enemies — in a clear-eyed manner — for the purposes of defending and advancing America’s national security," a welcome change from the threats and bellicose rhetoric offered by this and previous administrations. Hagel urges "patience and caution" in Syria and appears to understand the obvious complexity of the region and the blowback and unintended consequences of U.S. military intervention. He speaks knowledgeably about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than offering up a black-and-white argument for either side.

All of these factors indicate a much more sober and realistic foreign policy approach which is so badly needed in Washington.

But then again, when the attack dogs are out, Hagel has been quick to pledge his obligatory undying support for Israel, support for Iran sanctions, and opposition to cutting even the rate of scheduled increases to the military budget. While Hagel occasionally offers non-interventionists a bone, he is very quick to fall back in line to the bomb-now-ask-questions-later "foreign policy consensus."

So Hagel is definitely a mixed bag; not as good as his supporters make him out to be, and nowhere near as bad as his detractors claim. To his credit, the neocon Beltway cabal that just won't go away absolutely despise him. As David Weigel at Slate reports, Bill Kristol's Weekly Standard has been running multiple anti-Hagel articles per day. The Emergency Committee for Israel is running television ads against Hagel, and opponents have accused him of being anti-gay. Senator Dan Coats (R-Ind.) even called Hagel — with two Purple Hearts and a reputation for fighting for vets — disrespectful of the military! With enemies like these, one must be doing something right.

Drastically changing our foreign policy and restraining the state's power to use lethal force is the key issue for libertarians. This is why I can understand many in the liberty/peace movement who I have the utmost respect for (like Justin Raimondo, Kelly Vlahos, and Ray McGovern) clinging to Hagel for some type of foreign policy sanity and salvation.

But even if Hagel is confirmed, it is highly unlikely that he will have the ability to sway Obama's hand. The president, after all, is someone who relishes his nearly universally unquestioned authority to create "kill lists," suspend due process, and dispense arbitrary death from the sky. Besides, Obama wants drone-lover John Brennan to be the new CIA director, and Hagel's voice would likely be drowned out by the screeches of the hawks that surround the White House.

While I would prefer, say, someone like Andrew Bacevich or Michael Scheuer running the defense department, given the current political reality, Hagel may be the best we can hope for for now. He's no Rothbardian, but he sure isn't a Joe Lieberman or John McCain either. And given the hawks that perch along the Beltway that demand perpetual war, endless interventions, and unlimited state power, it's a small consolation for libertarians and a growing anti-interventionist public.