Long-time Republican Senator Chuck Hagel is set to testify before his former colleagues this week in order to secure their consent to serve as President Obama’s new secretary of defense. Despite Hagel’s long tenure as a respected voice on national security issues and his credentials as a decorated war hero, his nomination has not been without controversy. Shortly after his name was leaked, he was attacked for being insufficiently supportive of Israel, too soft on Iran, and too supportive of constraining the defense budget.
The Israel hawks on the Democratic side of the aisle are likely to fall in line after Senator Schumer offered his seal of approval and AIPAC decided to take a back seat. But some Republicans — both naked partisans and neoconservative ideologues — have decided to saddle up and go to war over Hagel’s nomination.
A shadowy but well heeled group called Americans for a Strong Defense has recently been formed and has declared their intention to make a major ad buy in at least five states indicting Hagel’s “out-of-the-mainstream” views and calling on the Senators in those states to reject his nomination. Hagel’s views, though, are eminently mainstream, as judged by the opinions of both the public and the foreign affairs establishment. What’s really happening is that opposition is coming largely from a small but vocal group of right-wing neoconservatives, whose rise and subsequent fall after the last Bush administration have left them terrified of becoming permanently marginalized.
Polling indicates that a plurality of Americans believe that the current level and nature of U.S. support for Israel is appropriate. Hagel’s reticence about pursuing an unnecessary military confrontation with Iran is a view shared by the American people in addition to the Israeli defense and intelligence community. And as for the defense budget? The public, the Joint Chiefs, and the majority of the foreign policy establishment all publicly share his and the president’s opinion that real and reasonable reductions in the growth of Pentagon spending can be achieved without compromising U.S. national security.
In many ways, the most bipartisan and popular foreign policy position in America today is support for Obama’s campaign to unwind the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a patent rejection of the two enterprises which now stand as the most high-profile symbols of modern neoconservative adventurism. The attacks on Chuck Hagel are not coming from people who believe he is outside of the mainstream. They are coming from neocons who fear that his nomination lays bare the shortsightedness of their neoconservative ideology and threatens their monopoly on defining strong national security strategy. It is Americans for a Strong Defense who are now outside the mainstream, not Chuck Hagel. And they are absolutely terrified of obsolescence.