Whose Terrible Idea Was It to Nominate Hagel, Anyway?

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Photo: Alex Wong/2013 Getty Images

The nomination of Chuck Hagel was a giddy moment for a small cadre of intellectuals eager to shift the foreign-policy debate in general, and the Democratic Party’s foreign-policy thinking in particular, to the left. The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons, a “realist” advocating a return to Nixon-Kissinger foreign-policy-making with little regard for human rights, pounded the table for Hagel’s nomination. Peter Beinart called Hagel “the New Eisenhower” and predicted naming him “will be the greatest blow in years to the culture of timidity that dominates the Democratic foreign-policy class.” Clemons predicted the Hagel nomination would be a cakewalk: “The GOP rightly or wrongly has had its cannon blast over Susan Rice. They can’t do it twice.”

As it turned out, the Hagel nomination has been a fiasco. (Clemons’s chins-up take that Hagel “met expectations” is the most optimism any Hagel backers can muster.) It turns out there were reasons beyond the nefarious power of the Israel Lobby or the inexplicable timidity of the Democratic foreign-policy establishment not to nominate Chuck Hagel.

Some of those reasons are prosaic. In a hearing, the Senators control the agenda. That’s why John McCain was able to put Hagel’s poor prediction about the impact of the Iraq troops surge on trial, and Hagel was not able to do the same to McCain’s even worse predictions about the Iraq War itself. (That’s a thing about historical lessons the realists haven’t quite internalized: They don’t all point in the same direction. Sometimes hawks get things right.)

What’s more, Hagel has said lots of things that Obama does not endorse, most of which Hagel himself no longer endorses, and some of which Hagel says he never believed at all.

Hagel repeatedly ran away from his own statements, at one point explaining that he wished he could “go back and edit that, like many of the things I’ve said, I would like to change the words and the meaning.” If he could turn back time, if he could find a way, he’d take back all the words that hurt you.

Two other factors never anticipated by Hagel’s supporters revealed themselves. While bungled or ill-conceived wars may be unpopular, hawkish positions in the abstract are popular. It's not merely the power of the Israel Lobby that makes politicians pledge their devotion to Israel — Israel is really popular. And Hagel himself does not appear to be especially brilliant. The two factors intermingled, and Hagel spent endless hours stepping on rakes and trying to retain his dwindling dignity.

He not only had to correct and revise statements he had made in the past. He also kept making new statements during the hearings that required real-time renunciation. He called the Iranian government “elected, legitimate,” and when asked to clarify how this could describe a government whose election process and popular legitimacy are, to say the least, shaky, he offered: "What I meant to say, should have said, it's recognizable. It's been recognized, is recognized at the United Nations. Most of our allies have embassies  there. That is what I should have said.”

The most embarrassing moment came when Hagel defended a policy of containing nuclear Iran, before being reminded by the incredulous (friendly!) chairman Carl Levin that this was not the administration’s policy. Hagel quickly agreed.

The liberal defense of Hagel has been dominated from the outset by enemy-of-my-enemy thinking. But while becoming the target of Bill Kristol’s smear machine may qualify you for sympathy, it does not inherently qualify you for a cabinet post. Hagel is not an anti-Semite. But there are plenty of non-anti-Semites out there who can make it through a confirmation hearing without suffering total public humiliation.

Hagel probably will get his post at the end. Historically, it requires a massive scandal to sink a cabinet nominee. They have never faced a filibuster, and the general presumption has been that a president deserves the latitude to name people to carry out his chosen policies.

But Hagel’s value proposition was supposed to be more than that – that he would be a commanding figure who could dominate the debate. The hearings cemented a buffoonish image Hagel will probably never shake and destroyed whatever value-over-replacement he could have brought as an advocate of Obama’s agenda. The Republicans are probably better off with a wounded Hagel in office than voting him down, and Obama can’t abandon him, either. The left-realists have lured Obama into a war that’s turned into a quagmire.