It has been two weeks since the Obama administration released a trial balloon floating Chuck Hagel as its choice for Secretary of Defense and, after generating scads of analyses from those for and against the former senator, Hagel’s nomination has been effectively secured. The Atlantic’s Steve Clemons, interviewing prominent neocon Zalmay Khalilzad, got this unexpected answer when he asked if Khalilzad had any additional thoughts about Hagel: “He deserves serious consideration to be the next Secretary of Defense.” It’s was no endorsement but having a neocon admit that Hagel merits “serious consideration” is a bombshell considering that neocons are arrayed against Hagel, trying their damnedest to assassinate his character. But perhaps the neocon furor is a clever ruse and Khalilzad is actually representative of their inmost thoughts. All their shrieking, then, is the neocon’s way of getting publicity and treading water in a political scene that is increasingly questioning their relevance.
Underneath all the mud-slinging, the neocons know that, at the end of the day, they can tolerate an appointed Hagel. As a realist, Hagel isn’t as fanatically devoted to the potency of the American empire as the neocons but that doesn’t mean he’s about to oversee its dismantling. Realists take a pragmatic approach to the empire, preferring it to be managed competently rather than crazily. Not for them are grand delusions such as ushering in “the birth pangs of a new Middle East” at bayonet point. It could be that the neocons might even appreciate having the realists save the empire they adore from being run into the ground by their own fever dreams. So, the two camps are allies on empire as an American way of life but it’s the direction the realists wish to go that is driving a wedge between them.
The reason the neocons have reservations about Hagel, the reason Khalilzad told Clemons “I have not always agreed with Chuck Hagel’s views,” is because to them the empire would be threatened if the Middle East—where the realists seek to have a lighter footprint–slipped from Washington’s grasp. As they have it, the Middle East is the locus of the empire and its entire edifice could be undone if the U.S. stopped brashly meddling there with anything less than the firmest hand. Compounding their concern, neocons fear that Hagel’s frank talk of divergent interests between the U.S. and Israel will alienate the Israelis, terminate the ‘special relationship’, and thus pull out the linchpin of the American Raj. Israel’s need for unconditional U.S. support is the primary reason we hear for why we must remain so committed to Middle East affairs but what happens if Israel dumps us for a new benefactor should a realist-inclined Washington, say, decide to take a principled stand on settlements? It’s a bridge the neocons never want to have to cross.
Keeping up this justification is what explains the neocons’ Israel-centric outlook—an outlook that they and other “pro-Israel extremists” expect every official in Washington D.C. to have. There must be no daylight between the two nations and realists are threatening to let the proverbial sun shine forth. All the debate over Hagel puts this issue of clashing U.S. and Israeli interests into the forefront of the national discourse as he once declared that his “first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States… Not to Israel.” This comment convinced the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens that Hagel had “cast the usual slur on Jewish-Americans: Dual loyalty.” He did no such thing but Stephens does pose a provocative question—is there such a creature as an Israel Firster? Former AIPAC staffer MJ Rosenberg says yes there is but I suspect that neocons appear as if they are Israel Firsters because they are really America Firsters—American Empire Firsters, that is—and they merely recognize how indispensable Israel is for the imperial enterprise and act accordingly.
Yet, as we now know thanks to Mr. Khalilzad, these doubts that the neocons harbor about Hagel aren’t quite enough to sink his possible nomination even in their own minds. Moreover, even if the neocons were wholeheartedly opposed, they would pale before the impressive list of pro-Hagel notables. The path is clear for President Obama to nominate Hagel and do so comfortably. How come he tarries? It’s doubtful he’s taking the neocon histrionics seriously but there is one thing that could be making him waver: Hagel’s position on the Pacific Pivot. As much as Hagel dislikes our Middle East policy he’s equally not fond of instigating a confrontation with China and that might be a deal-breaker for Obama. As J. Dana Stuster, who observes that Hagel is “at odds with the liberal interventionists” as much as he is with neocons, explains:
“Nor is he a natural fit with the administration’s signature Asia pivot policy. He is wary of any strategy that smacks of “economic, political, and military containment” of China: “this kind of belligerence would be a disaster for our two nations and for the world…. such a policy would fail.”
Did Hagel sink his nomination on account of that statement? Perhaps not—the President could still view him as an invaluable voice to have in his cabinet considering that the U.S. will no longer be a global power by 2030, according to a report by the National Intelligence Council. Washington has been warned that “the ‘unipolar moment’ is over and Pax Americana—the era of American ascendancy in international politics that began in 1945—is fast winding down.” To settle into this impending transition of America’s global standing, who better to have as Secretary of Defense than a man who, as Stuster notes, presents himself in his book America “as an Eisenhower conservative–low budgets and no wars.” Hagel didn’t meet that standard as a senator but maybe the responsibility he’ll bear as head of a leaner Pentagon will give him the opportunity to achieve his ideal. So, will Obama face reality in a time of decline and select Hagel or will he yield to the partisans of empire–neocon and liberal interventionist alike—and pass the buck?