All the World’s a Stage For Politicians

Chuck Hagel had a less than stellar performance at his hearing where he faltered before those who freshman senator Angus King dubbed his “inquisitors.” To Michael Cohen, Hagel was “sluggish, tongue-tied and practically meek in the face of constant badgering” and Winslow Wheeler found him “fumbling and apologetic.” But how could he have comported himself so woefully with all the weeks of preparation he undoubtedly had? How come, as John Judis observed, “Hagel acted as if he was blindsided”?  It’s because he was acting, like he and Senator Chuck Schumer did when they met last month. This time Hagel was participating in the gaudy, gigantic political circus that is a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. There was no need for him to deliver riveting soliloquies in response to the absurd grilling and all he had to do was the minimum–avoid fighting back and let his former colleagues clown around to their heart’s content.

That the hearing was but a grandiose show was amply illustrated by Matt Duss who came up with an explanation for the “hesitant and adrift” Hagel:

Looking to make sense of the spectacle, I spoke to a former senior defense official who has testified over 200 times before Congressional committees, who suggested that Hagel may have been right not to push back harder. “The thing to remember with these hearings is that the Senators have home-field advantage,” he said. “You really can’t win. If they’re there to score points, they’ll do it.”

As to the element of performance involved, “Once, before a hearing, I was passed a note by a Senator,” the former official continued. “It read ‘Don’t pay attention to what I’m about to say, it’s not directed at you, it’s directed at my constituents.’ So there’s a lot of theater involved in these things.”

James Joyner, who cited the foregoing quote in his own piece on the hearing, felt that saying there’s “a lot of theater involved” was “a rather kind understatement. In fact, the hearings—like pretty much all congressional hearings—are almost entirely theater with very little substance. The senators have already made up their mind on how they’re going to vote.” Defense expert Anthony Cordesman concurs, telling Matthew Schofield that “the hearing appeared to be about stating already set opinions and that he [Cordesman] doubted it would change any votes.” Hagel certainly knew that this was a farce with a foreordained outcome and he shrewdly muttered the answers he needed to in order to get confirmed. One of the inquisitors, Senator Jim Inhofe, caught on to this when he commented on the prospective Defense Secretary’s “recent trend of policy reversals that seem based on political expediency rather than on core beliefs.” True, but Inhofe and the rest of the resistance were likely doing some play-acting of their own.

Hagel must have been passed his fair share of notes from his opponents who reassured him that he should ignore their grandstanding which was for scoring political points in their home states (Just look at who Senator Lindsey Graham has to placate). But, aside from the anti-Hagel japeries at the hearing, there is an even greater act of collective mendacity pervading Washington that was on display that day. “It’s the law” as Jon Schwarz describes it that “everybody in the U.S. government has to tell this funny lie”: all options are on the table for dealing with Iran. No politico believes that to be the case because, as Schwarz argues, none of them have ever advocated for the best and “obvious option for dealing with any Iranian ambitions to build nuclear weapons would be for the U.S. to push for a zone free of all nuclear weapons throughout the Mideast.” All options are clearly not being weighed and Schwarz’s piece reminded me of another funny lie that I uncovered—the military option isn’t really on the table either.

Though I have written about how Israel dropped the military option against Iran and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pulling off the bluff of the century, considering the strong aversion to war with Iran in the U.S. military establishment it’s safe to say that the Pentagon stealthily dropped the option too. All this insistence that the U.S. will bomb Iran is wind but everyone in Washington, whatever their private scruples, is obliged to uphold this unspoken law so as not to rupture the bluff. Why is Washington taking this gambit? Because it has its advantages, which is the reason no one will come out in force against the military option but instead delicately object about timing. Like with Israeli officials who know war would be a disastrous idea zip their lips because they don’t wish to ruin Netanyahu’s successful poker maneuver, their U.S. counterparts recognize the benefits of bravado.

For Israel, bluffing that they’ll unilaterally attack Iran, as Israeli commentator Udi Segal outlines the strategy, “makes the Iranians feel fear, the Americans take action, the Europeans impose sanctions, and everyone worry.” For the U.S. the constant touting of a military option keeps tensions up in the region which makes the Gulf States clamorous for more and better arms. Our supplying them with these arms serves to make them bastions against Iran, putting them in the forefront of the mini Cold War while the U.S., leading from behind, is then finally able to pivot to the Pacific. So, in brief, that’s why we see everyone publicly truckling to the hawks but we needn’t be worried because everyone is in on the ruse. What we’ve learned from Hagel’s hearing and the capital’s ubiquitous theatrics is that overtly discussing serious policy is subordinated to having politicians strutting and fretting their hour upon the world’s stage and risking World War III in the process.

The World According to Neocons

The outcome of Hagel’s nomination is not in doubt so why does his neocon opposition still insist on fighting their feeble rearguard action? They probably recognize their efforts are a forlorn hope at this point but that’s no reason for them not to carry on and take this opportunity to corral some cash. Though they’ll fail in scotching his confirmation, their delusional crusade (which they only half-heartedly belive in) will succeed handsomely in scaring up funding for their various groups. Money may be their primary goal here but that’s not to say there isn’t a kernel of conviction in the neocons combating Hagel. Their plaint with Hagel has to do with how he’ll affect their particular vision of the American empire—one centered on the Middle East–which not coincidentally ensures their job security. The neocons fear for their political lives and are striving to avoid again becoming the “crazies in the basement” as they were under Reagan or booted out of Washington altogether.

That Hagel is secondary to neocon concerns of staying afloat was noticed by Joseph Nye, a former top Defense Department official. “This battle has not as much to do with Chuck Hagel or any comments he made on Israel. This is about re-litigating major changes in foreign policy.” So what is the foreign policy status quo so important to neocons that they must keep tilting their lances at windmills? In short, the U.S.’s military presence in the Middle East is the lynchpin of the American Empire and Israel is the lynchpin of our military presence there. That explains why neocons are so solicitous towards Israel that many believe that they put Israel’s interests above U.S. interests. This isn’t true but Israel is so essential to the U.S.’s regional position that the neocons are simply willing to give Israel carte blanche to keep it that way. At bottom the neocons don’t give a fig for Israel which explains why the Israelis themselves ignore neocon policy prescriptions.

My thesis that neocons and other assorted ‘Israel-Firsters’ are actually ‘American Empire Firsters’ has been echoed by Emily Hauser. Here is her take on the subject:

“The facts-optional anti-Hagel campaign was never about Israel—and no matter how often “Israel” is uttered, neocon fear-mongering never is, in fact, about Israel. Neocon attacks on Obama are about American power… The neocon movement is predicated on wanting to see American muscle used everywhere, at all times, for reasons that pretty much boil down to looking tough and profiting from same. And by “profiting,” I mean literal profiting, in the form of America’s corporate interests gaining hegemony over the world’s resources, which doesn’t always translate to defending our shores, no matter how the Right tries to spin it… neocons (just like every political subset everywhere) are also heavily invested in wanting to be in charge.”

Now that it has been well established that the empire is the neocon’s true priority, why do they view the Middle East as so crucial to it? Hauser has her finger on the pulse when she mentions the craving for “gaining hegemony over the world’s resources” and linked to an article entitled “The Costs of War for Oil”. Yes, oil plays a great role but not for the commonly accepted reason. Iraq was not invaded so the U.S. could guarantee access to that nation’s oil supply—we could have used the trillions we’ve spent occupying Iraq and Afghanistan to secure decades-worth of fuel—but to be in a position to deny access to others. This doesn’t mean that Washington wants to outright debar China, for example, from purchasing Middle Eastern oil but they do want to be able to shut off the faucet should China ever become a peer competitor. And, with that, we’ve come upon the heart of the neocon’s foreign policy—the Wolfowitz Doctrine.

Formulated in 1992 as part of the draft (authored by Paul Wolfowitz) of the Defense Policy Guidance 1992-94, this post-Cold War grand strategy that, as the New York Times phrased it, “makes the case for a world dominated by one superpower whose position can be perpetuated by constructive behavior and sufficient military might to deter any nation or group of nations from challenging American primacy.” The initial document—which advocated “convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests”–was leaked to the press causing such a public ruckus that Bush administration officials stepped in to dilute its contents. Yet its recommendations lived on, forming the basis for the later neocon policy paper, Rebuilding America’s Defenses, and its notion of the U.S. as a paramount imperial power explains today’s new cold wars against Iran and China.

So even if the neocons are relegated to the basement they can revel in a victory of sorts, for the spirit of the Wolfowitz doctrine survives. Neocons and realists, insofar as they both uphold the empire, differ over means rather than ends but the empire rolls ever onward despite Washington having to take an alternative approach from specific neocon prescriptions. Of course, in accordance with our nation’s founding principles, there shouldn’t be an American empire at all but, since anti-imperialist and non-interventionist voices scarcely get a fair hearing, the debate over how best to manage the empire will continue—and might even flare up—during the upcoming Hagel confirmation.

The Hagel Confirmation Circus

Chuck Hagel has evaded a contentious battle for his confirmation by receiving the support of Senator Chuck Schumer and in exchange for this important endorsement he appeared to reverse the positions that many of his former colleagues have found unsettling. I say appeared to because, though it sure looks as if Hagel checked his principles at the door and is undergoing ‘confirmation conversion,’ both Hagel and Shumer were only going through the motions of political theater. It’s a stretch to say that Shumer had any nagging qualms about Hagel when Prime Minister Netanyahu and other members of the Israeli right aren’t in the least disquieted by him. Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin went so far as to say Israel should be “concerned, but not afraid of Hagel’s isolationist ideas.” Hagel’s no isolationist but it’s slightly surprising to hear that Israelis wouldn’t be overly bothered if he was. If the Israelis have no reservations about Hagel, Schumer certainly won’t so why the need for a confab where Hagel makes amends?

Schumer was going to ratify the president’s pick all along but had to pay lip-service to his constituents. “Schumer has to play a game,” a Democratic Hill aide told Ali Gharib, “He has to sound like he’s actually listening to those New Yorkers.” A Republican activist also confided this to Gharib: “I was told by people that this is all set up, and Schumer’s going to endorse him… He’s got the headlines he wants.” In line with this tightrope act, the two had to meet (with the outcome never in doubt), recite their scripted lines and have Hagel appropriately tweak his positions in such a way that satisfied Schumer and allow Hagel to convincingly claim later that he stuck to his guns. It was a clever bit of acting where Hagel really made no concessions and Schumer really asked for none.

To the naked eye Hagel shifted and some took it as a victory for the Israel Lobby but put his updated comments under a microscope and you’ll find Hagel hardly giving any ground. It all becomes clearer in a letter Hagel sent to Senator Barbara Boxer which subsequently garnered her support. “Regarding unilater sanctions, I have told the president I completely support his policy on Iran. I agree that with Iran’s continued rejection of diplomatic overtures, further effective sanctions both multilateral and unilateral may be necessary.” May be necessary—he didn’t say they are necessary and he implies that if Iran returns to the table unilateral sanctions would be scrapped as a tactic. Another thing missed by those who are convinced Hagel capitulated is that, yes, he completely supports the president’s policy on Iran but what he leaves unsaid is which policy—Obama’s preferred policy or the one thrust upon him by Iran hawks?

The White House has been consistently against unilateral sanctions but the threat that Israel might bomb Iran if they’re not passed has forced its hand everytime. Caving into these demands for punitive unilateral sanctions has given the impression that the administration is hawkish on Iran but its veriest sympathies lie with multilateralism and speedily reaching a deal so the U.S. can “re-balance” towards East Asia. We witness the administration’s ongoing dislike for these measures when they invariably work to water them down, turning them into ‘voodoo sanctions.’ It has been a longstanding position of Obama’s–he favored tough multilateral sanctions coupled with principled diplomacy during his first campaign—and it’s a position virtually identical to Hagel’s. The two similar outlooks are to be expected, for ever since his arrival in the Senate Obama was influenced by Hagel.

“Hagel and Lugar, both foreign-policy realists with an appreciation for international cooperation, became two of Obama’s closest colleagues and mentors in the Senate,” writes Daniel Klaidman. It would be interesting to find out the degree to which Obama was molded by the “wonkfests” he had with the two former senators but he was already ideologically quite close to Hagel at the outset of the Iraq war.  Klaidman reminds us that Obama at the time “was sounding many of the same notes as Hagel. Obama didn’t oppose all wars but he opposed dumb wars, he said in a speech in October 2002: “What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt … by weekend warriors in this administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives and in hardships borne.” Obama is essentially echoing Hagel’s warning about the reckless entry into Iraq, the latter telling Newsweek in 2002:

“It’s interesting to me that many of those who want to rush the country into war and think it would be so quick and easy don’t know anything about war. They come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off.”

Suffice it to say, the president and his secretary of defense-designate are on the same wavelength and have been since Hagel took Obama under his wing. Considering Obama was shaped by Hagel and that–despite public posturing–he has been dovish on Iran from the start, the nominee saying that he agrees with Obama’s approach means he’s agreeing with his own and therefore hasn’t knuckled under the pressure to obtain easy senate votes and ensure a smooth confirmation process. Hagel is merely playing his part in the political pantomime just as Obama has to every day by approving unilateral sanctions and maintaining that the military option is on the table. But both know that the tide has turned; both know that “we’ve got to understand great-power limitations” as Hagel has said; both know it’s time for a deal with Iran. Don’t be deceived–no matter what hawkish piffle you hear from either of them, Hagel and  Obama will follow their internationalist instincts and end up  accomplishing peace.

Hagel and Obama–Birds of a Feather

Newly nominated Chuck Hagel will encounter some choppy waters in his confirmation hearings but will safely sail into the position of Defense Secretary and the ruminating about what impact he’ll have on the Obama administration’s second term foreign policy has begun. The unexciting answer is: no, his appointment will not spark any meaningful change in Obama’s policies so much as solidify them. Hannah Allam quotes Toby C. Jones, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers, as saying “My sense is that, in spite of all the hand-wringing–especially surrounding Hagel–there’s less here than meets the eye” And it’s not that Hagel’s influence is inconsequential because he will have to defer to President Obama but because he and his boss already have approximate worldviews. As Ben Rhodes told Greg Miller, “all three nominees share Obama’s basic view of the world and the US’ place in it, a view that favors multilateral alliances and a reliance on intelligence and lethal technology, holding war as a last resort.” That last view implies that, in spite of all the ambiguity, Hagel and Obama are at one over Iran as well.

Though Hagel was accused by the Washington Post editoral board of having “stated positions” on Iran that “fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term,” I don’t think Hagel and Obama will lock horns over Iran sanctions because Obama doesn’t really subscribe to his own stated public posture. An ABC News item, trying to magnify the occasions where Hagel diverged from Obama, Biden, and Kerry on sanctions, nevertheless ends up emphasizing how similar their overall stances are—i.e. “that Hagel falls neatly in line with this Obama sanctions paradigm—multilateral good, unilateral less effective.” Obama’s preferred method has been a multilateral approach and the White House resisted when unilateral sanctions on Iran’s central bank were proposed in late 2011 as Gareth Porter recounts:

U.S. officials told Reuters Nov. 8 that sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank were “not on the table.” The Obama administration was warning that such sanctions would risk a steep rise in oil prices worldwide and a worsening global recession, while actually increasing Iranian oil revenues.

But Netanyahu used the power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee over congressional action related to Israel to override Obama’s opposition. The Senate unanimously passed an amendment representing Netanyahu’s position on sanctions focused on Iran’s oil sector and the Central Bank, despite a letter from Secretary of Treasury Tim Geithner opposing it.

The president again expressed his displeasure with another round of unilateral sanctions last month, arguing that they would not be conducive to keeping together the international effort to curtail Iran’s nuclear program. Again, the White House’s protestations were overruled by congress and, according to Jim Lobe, the unanimous vote “was immediately praised by the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee.”  Of course, the president has always had the option of vetoing these disagreeable bills so why has he refrained? The ongoing threat of Israel bombing Iran was enough to tie Obama’s hands, says Gareth Porter. The administration felt itself compelled to capitulate to those shouting for sanctions “as an alternative to an unprovoked attack by Israel.” Leveraging this risk of an incontinent Israel, AIPAC proved to be irresistible in ratcheting up the fabricated Iran crisis but it has met more than its match with the advent of Hagel.

Faced with opposing a cabinet nominee (AIPAC traditionally remains neutral towards such picks), the lobby promptly backed down. Their silence—and hence tacit acceptance of the president’s actual position on Iran by way of Hagel–will grant Obama the latitude to at last be rid of the sanctions rigmarole and pursue diplomacy in earnest. The administration is now free to rescind the unilateral sanctions and thereby bring the Iranians back to the negotiating table. That still leaves the preferred multilateral sanctions. But why does Obama support sanctions of any kind when he wants to wrap things up with Iran so he can concentrate on the Pacific Pivot as quick as possible? Could it be that he has to humor the hawks and a dovish Obama privately doesn’t approve of sanctions? Peter Feaver thinks there’s substance to that theory and has everything to do with Hagel.

Feaver dismisses the assumption that “a hawkish Obama is nominating a dovish Hagel because only a dove like Hagel could persuade reluctant doves in congress, in the pentagon, and in the broader public to support military action on Iran, should it ever come to it”. “A more likely possibility,” Feaver avers, “is that Obama is in fact dovish, despite what the official policy says.” Given how both Hagel and Obama have a predilection for multilateral sanctions and stress the necessity of the U.S. talking bilaterally with Iran, I concur with Feaver that Hagel was nominated not because Obama recognizes Hagel as a secret hawk but because Obama is actually a “dove-in-hawk’s feathers.”

When talking of Obama and Hagel being doves it must be clarified that this is only in the context of Iran. In general, Hagel is no dove and neither is the president. A Hagel as Defense Secretary won’t mean less interventions and wars–just lighter ones of the Libyan stripe. Greg Miller describes Obama’s modus operandi as “assembling a national security team designed for an era of downsized but enduring conflict—a team that will be asked to wield power through the targeted use of sanctions, Special Operations forces and drone strikes.” So as much as Washingon might like to put Iran in its place it has resigned itself to the fact that, in an era of imperial austerity, a shooting war, regime change, and occupation are not the way to go about it. Whatever their initial inclinations, reality has morphed Obama and Hagel into Iran doves and that’s why Hagel’s being brought aboard—he and the presidents are birds of a feather.

The War That Still Isn’t

Last year, when with every passing month there appeared spooky new articles counting down to Zero Hour, I was one of the very few commentators who predicted that there would be no war with Iran and that all the blithering about a U.S. or Israeli military option was, and still is, a masterly bluff. All the feigned trepidation over Iran has more to do with a schism within Washington over grand strategy than an Iranian nuke posing a threat to the whole world. So will these clamorous Cassandras be right this time in 2013? My Nostradamus-type prognostication is that, no, there still isn’t going to be war. Nothing has happened in the interim since I initially thought so to convince me otherwise. Instead, I argued that the West would eventually accept Iran’s civilian enrichment—a forecast which is already being borne out.

The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl recently addressed the Iran war in 2013 question and found that “there’s a good case to be made that next year will finally bring a break in the Iranian standoff—by means of a military confrontation, the appearance of an Iranian bomb or a diplomatic deal of some kind.” Well, which one will it be? In my estimation, the first two aren’t happening—no side wants a war and Iran prefers not having a nuclear arsenal—so that leaves a deal. As for Diehl, he discusses the matter with Dennis Ross, President Obama’s former adviser on Iran, who also foresees a deal in the offing where “Obama will likely first present Khamenei with a final offer, allowing Iran a civil nuclear power program under tight restrictions.” For Iran’s part “Ross… sees some signs that the Iranian leadership and state-controlled media are setting up a climate in which the supreme leader could make such a decision,” to approve a comprehensive bargain.

That sounds most encouraging and, while Ross cautions that “If by the end of 2013 diplomacy hasn’t worked, the prospects for use of force become quite high,” a resolution will be reached before then. The Obama administration is anxious to pivot to the Pacific and so the sooner things in the Middle East can be cleared up the better. Although Israel would surely object to an America that was less than obsessively fixed on the region, if it came to it Israel would simply adapt by allying with Iran. To cement this “Tehran-Tel Aviv Axis” Israel, in a move that would contradict decades of mania over an Iranian bomb, might even go so far as to allow Iran to build nukes. Indeed, an Iran that remained joined to Israel under the periphery doctrine could have gotten nukes whenever it pleased.

When Israel began waxing hysterical over a nuclear Iran in the early Nineties, Andrew Killgore at the time was convinced  these “‘Leaks’ in Israel’s press last fall about the inevitability of an Israeli action to “take out” Iranian nuclear capability were just part of Shamir’s campaign [for a new benefactor]. The message to Iran was do it with us or we won’t let you do it at all.” Israel is not opposed to a nuclear-armed Iran per se and likely wouldn’t care a thing about it provided the two were partners. The same goes for Washington, which was deeply involved in helping its ally, the Shah of Iran, build a nuclear program—a program that, by the way, did have a weapons dimension until it was scrapped under Ayatollah Khomeini. Remembering that, it’s no wonder that the U.S. is bent on restricting Iran’s nuclear capacity: if the Iranians develop a full nuclear cycle independently it means U.S. corporations can’t develop it for billions of dollars.

I’ve spent months maintaining that the hoopla about a nuclear Iran is little more than a gross fraud and have provided several reasons for why this campaign against a phantasm is being waged. Here is yet another: decrying Iran is a cheap, easy way to score domestic political points. Pondering the mindless nature of congressional sanctions against Iran, Paul Pillar suspects “it is a mistake to take [the sanctions’] stated objectives at face value and that for some members getting a negotiated agreement with Iran is less important than their own posturing, which is based on the belief that Iran-bashing and Iran-pressuring is always good politics.” It is indeed good for politicians, who are invariably eager to set up and bash a foreign bugaboo to distract from their manifest failures to solve problems at home.

Senator Tom Watson, referring to the Spanish-American War, captured the logic behind politicians promoting conflict abroad: “It takes the attention of the people off economic issues, and perpetuates the unjust system they have put upon us. Politicians profit by this war. It buries issues they dare not meet.” The U.S. and Israeli politicians, however, prefer a cold war with Iran, which brings them all the benefits of a belligerent atmosphere without any bombs dropped. This state of semi-war is very much a choice for these politicos. Israelis officials, for instance, wouldn’t have to agonize over a potential nuclear Iran if they joined with Turkey (and Iran) in advocating a Mideast Nuclear Weapons Free Zone. But Israel declined to attend the latest conference on that topic and in consequence cancelled it. It’s clear that to the Israeli government having Iran persist as a dreaded specter is advantageous. Why and to what end?

Previously, I’ve made mention of an Iranian political science professor who asserted that Tehran, Tel Aviv, and Washington “need each other” and have a symbiosis wherein each can point to an awful antagonist to better control their respective countries. Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar also sees this phenomenon at play in his piece “We Won’t Relinquish the Enemy” about Israel’s inability to accept the Saudi peace plan that would terminate the Arab-Israeli conflict. Eldar explains this bizarre refusal with Constantine Cavafy’s poem “Waiting for the Barbarians”: “And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? / They were, those people, a kind of solution.” The impression of barbarians—be they Iranian or Arab—encamped outside Israel’s gates is perfect for politicians and their purposes so they aren’t about to start a war and risk dispelling the helpful horde. This scheme emphasizes all the more that there will be no military action against Iran. Now isn’t that great news for the New Year?

Hagel and the Fight for Empire

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?

The Hagel Hullabaloo

The wriggle and struggle for high political office can get rowdy on Capitol Hill but Obama’s pick for Secretary of Defense is already proving to be extra contentious. Why all the controversy surrounding Chuck Hagel’s appointment? Why would a senior Republican aide, use near slanderous language to defame Hagel, saying “Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.” I say near slanderous language because this aide and his confreres in the pro-Israel camp aren’t sincere in their censure. All of Hagels soon-to-be critics are deliberately and desperately leveling this charge because Hagel at the Pentagon’s helm means their jobs are at stake. To anyone making their living weaving reasons for why the U.S. must stay comfortably nestled in Middle East affairs the comparatively non-interventionist Hagel appears as the kiss of death for their policy-making prominence.

The droves of Hagel detractors care more about their own continued relevance than in the former senator’s supposedly nefarious character and, if pressed, they might grudgingly admit they value Hagel’s voice and could even wind up supporting him. How can I know this? Because that’s exactly what ended up happening to Hagel’s ideological equivalent and colleague, Senator Richard Lugar. Lobelog’s Marsha Cohen tells of the trajectory Lugar’s reputation took from the pro-Israel camp’s whipping boy at the time of John Kerry’s presidential run to their darling during the latest campaign:

Ironically, during the 2012 election cycle, Lugar—who the New York Sun dubbed “Ayatollah Lugar” for his skepticism about the wisdom of Iran sanctions—received $20,000 from NORPAC, a leading pro-Israel political action committee in New Jersey, more than any other candidate in the 2012 election cycle. The Jewish Week explains why pro-Israel groups lamented Lugar’s defeat in the Indiana GOP primary and his absence from the Senate: “… Israel advocates and GOP insiders explained that Lugar represented a breed of lawmaker who pro-Israel groups see as valuable to their cause and disappearing: One who reaches across the aisle. “Lugar wasn’t actively pro-Israel, but he wasn’t anti either,” said Mike Kraft, a staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1970s and 1980s who now is a consultant on counterterrorism and writes for a number of pro-Israel websites and think tanks. “But generally losing a good, balanced, thoughtful guy on foreign policy is a real tragedy. It weakens the American political system.

Neither pro nor anti-Israel—a neutral position like that is what all of congress ought to adopt. If pro-Israel advocates are able to appreciate Lugar as a “balanced, thoughtful guy on foreign policy” then maybe the U.S. can consider terminating its ‘special relationship’ with Israel and putting some daylight between the two countries to the mutual benefit of both. Israel would love not having to be under a superpower’s thumb and the U.S. normalizing relations with Israel to the point where we no longer unconditionally back its government’s every move would go a long way towards restoring our stature in the Arab and Muslim world. A more even-handed U.S. as arbiter would finally be able to negotiate in good faith, settle the festering Israel-Palestinian conflict (unless the two parties prove capable of doing so), dismantle our military presence in the Middle East, and leave.

The U.S. should not just leave the Middle East but everywhere else our troops are garrisoned and reset to a republican foreign policy of non-interventionism. Scrapping the empire would save substantial sums and get our economic house in order. But there will be resistance to this retrenchment from the imperially inclined in Washington for whom empire is very profitable. That’s another reason why Hagel will have to face ferocious opponents—his accession to Secretary of Defense would hit them hard in the money bag if the imperium was shrunk in any appreciable way. Hagel is a wary realist who doesn’t subscribe to the neocon Ledeen Doctrine which urges that “Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” Hagel realizes that the American people are war-weary and as a veteran himself who is cognizant of the rigors of armed conflict he would never attack other countries for such crass reasons as keeping those puny nuisances in line.

Hagel may be a realist but this doesn’t make him an unqualified non-interventionist. Dana Milbank, defending Hagel’s credential’s, reminds us that he “isn’t opposed to war (he voted for the conflicts in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq) but knows the grim costs of going to war without a plan.” Further, he “unlike some of his neocon critics, knows that military action doesn’t solve everything.” Hagel may not be a Ron Paul, but having his influence in the Cabinet is infinitely preferable to an environment where hawks who want to wage war for war’s sake are allowed to proliferate. Hopefully, his entry into the Obama administration will open the door for non-interventionists to have a greater say in public opinion since foreign policy realism will gain a new found prominence. Perhaps they could also one day persuade Hagel to agree that a true realist would recognize that maintaining a ruinous empire is not in our national interests.

Strange Bedfellows in the Post-America Middle East

Perusing David Turner’s archive to plumb his views on the Pacific Pivot, I stumbled across his treatment of another topic which I had in the past mentioned factored into Israel’s stance on Iran—the Periphery Doctrine. An alliance with neighboring non-Arab countries that was, as former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben Ami put it, “created in the 1950s as a tool for avoiding peace with the Arabs,” Turner asserts in his piece ‘After America Leaves’ that Israel is newly sprucing up this strategy not just to counter the Arab Awakening but, more importantly, as “a long-term strategic response to shifting American policy priorities.”

The revamped doctrine, Turner outlines, will naturally have Iran as its focus but against that ‘existential threat’ a string of periphery allies is no substitute for the support of the exiting Uncle Sam. Reorienting accordingly, “the real revolution in the doctrine is Israel’s outreach to India and China” but since they are the “next generation superpowers” Turner posits Israel might in the meantime try to court Russia.

Were it to fill the void of an absconding America in the Middle East, Russia becomes to Turner the prime candidate to “replace America’s ‘special relationship’” based on their mutual antipathy towards the spread of Islamism. Promising as this potential pact sounds, Turner nevertheless thinks it “unlikely based, if nothing else, on the fact of Russia’s relationships with Iran and Syria” and he ends up doubting that “Russia and Israel will enter into strategic partnership at the level of that which exists with the United States.” One would expect that this bleak outlook would send Turner into mourning as Israel would be cast adrift in a harsh, unforgiving Arab sea but he lets out nary a whimper. On the contrary, he quickly finds a silver lining in Israel having a lack of benefactors:

“And if, following America’s exit, Israel might not have the immediate security of a superpower with similar regional interests in a future conflict, neither would Israel have to ask permission to protect its own interest when they diverge from that superpower.”

Nations—no matter how intimately they try to align themselves–don’t have identical interests and that is no less true of the U.S. and Israel. Turner is acknowledging this truism above and he is aware that for all the unconditional support Israel receives from the U.S., the ‘special relationship’ has a definite downside. Israelis are doubtless resentful of their dependence on all the U.S. foreign aid and military largesse and they must bristle all the more when they have to get Washington’s blessing for their foreign policy decisions. The Israeli’s silent fury rarely reveals itself but Turner’s talk of Israel seeking other patrons reminded me of one instance when it did.

Twenty one years ago, then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir was incensed when U.S. President George H.W Bush called for conditions on the annual housing loan guarantees to Israel. “We may have to find a new benefactor,” threatened Shamir quite credibly. At the time, former ambassador to Qatar, Andrew Killgore, analyzed to what lengths Shamir was willing to go. China qualified as an option even then but he also found a seemingly inconceivable prime candidate for the role of “new benefactor”–Iran.

It’s not too shocking really given the complicated Iran-Israeli relationship as narrated by Trita Parsi and it does dovetail with the aforementioned periphery doctrine, confirming my conjecture that Israel wants to have Iran in its corner once more. Killgore proceeds to show the ease with which Israel can flip on Iran and elaborates on how what he coined the “Tehran-Tel Aviv Axis” would be reborn:

Through its influence in Washington, Israel could even see to it that Iran got nuclear weapons, and the Arabs didn’t. Two Middle Eastern nuclear powers, working cooperatively, could dominate the area and blackmail hostile American presidents into abandoning their own tendencies to throw their weight around in the Middle East.”

What a development in international affairs that would be! And it certainly could occur should a frustrated Israel grow weary of having to “ask permission to protect its own interest.” From all I’ve gathered, Turner, the late Prime Minister Shamir, and perhaps Israelis in the main all object to American intervention and therefore we should oblige them by severing the ‘special relationship’ and withdrawing militarily and politically from the Middle East. Israel would not fare badly if we did so—especially if the Tehran-Tel Aviv Axis Killgore envisioned does materialize. To silence the scoffers who say this alliance can’t happen because the two nations are too entrenched as enemies just recall that Israel was prepared to reach a rapprochement with Iran in the mid-Nineties and was serious enough to request Russia and Kazahkstan to mediate.

A Tehran-Tel Aviv axis would be a godsend for those Americans who want their country to pivot homeward and revert to a republic instead of remaining a hegemon bestriding the globe. Anyone arguing that an absent U.S. would trigger Middle Eastern Armageddon would be proven foolish as regional power blocs are formed in place of chaos and all the nations in the neighborhood successfully settle their own rows on their own terms. The U.S. does not need to throw its weight around the whole world to keep everything from going to pieces. Indeed, the U.S., conceived in liberty, should get out of the empire business which is hypocritical given our history. As historian Merrill Jensen observes “above all, the Revolution itself was a revolt against centralization of political authority,” not to mention the British Empire. So let’s politely excuse ourselves from the role of centralized global hyperpower on the world’s stage before we are unceremoniously shown the exit.

Pivot Homeward, America

When a ceasefire between Israel and Gaza was reached a couple weeks ago, the great question on everyone’s mind was what Operation Pillar of Cloud was about. Fox News speculated if it was a dress rehearsal for Iran and Israeli writer Amir Oren argued in his article ‘For Netanyahu, Gaza escalation could pave the way for Iran strike’ that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have not given up the dream of carrying out a major operation in Iran.” It was nothing of the kind, for both Israel and the United States are loath to start a shooting war with Iran or engage in regime change there. Iran is far too valuable a villain, you see.

One time, I half-jokingly proposed that, because of the nature of Washington’s ‘voodoo sanctions’ which give several nations escape routes and profits the regime, the U.S. and Iran were covertly colluding. Pierce through all the public denunciations and you’d find the ‘foes’ giving each other a knowing wink and a nod from afar. Though made in jest, I unwittingly hit upon a truth. After the 2005 Iranian elections, Scott Petersen recorded this gem from Iranian political analyst, Saeed Laylaz: “There are three ideological capitals, in Tehran, Tel Aviv, and Washington. They are apparently against each other, but they love each other. They need each other. We need a foreign enemy to control the country.” Though the ‘we’ in that last sentence was referring to Iran, it’s no stretch to presume that Laylaz’s statement equally applies to the other “ideological capitals” and that all three regularly use a looming bugaboo to sidestep domestic economic issues.

It’s no conspiracy, just typical political theater where behind-the-scenes reality reveals a symbiotic back-scratching arrangement between superficially hostile governments. Accordingly, neither Washington nor Tel Aviv will touch their convenient nemesis in Tehran but the narrative of imminent military attack dies hard. I wasn’t surprised therefore to see the ‘dress rehearsal’ thesis reiterated by Israeli writer David Turner. He cites a report that claims ‘Pillar of Cloud’ was a coup engineered by Obama as part of a grand plan to confront Iran. Leaving the veracity of Debka’s assertions aside, the most intriguing part of Turner’s piece is his thoughts on the Pacific Pivot: “To abandon the [Middle East] region would be a signal to the world, including its “allies” and dependencies of the Far East of America the fading giant: of America the Unreliable… What message to future enemies and allies will the US send if it abandons the Middle East to Iran…?”

Turner sounds as if he doesn’t object to the Pivot if Iran is drubbed into submission before the U.S. departs but this is belied by a cursory look at his recent work on that topic. “Over the years I have written regarding America gradual withdrawal from the Middle East,” writes Turner, echoing both myself and Hannah Allam, who was told by unnamed analysts that “Even before the Arab Spring the U.S. government was subtly disengaging from the Middle East.” While not going years back into his archives, I soon enough found that Turner’s assessment of the Pivot mirrored my own with the exception that U.S. withdrawal horrifies him. He agrees with me that the U.S. (under both parties) would rather contain China than deal with Iran and proceeds to upbraid America with livid language for its dereliction, accusing the U.S. of “slinking away like a thief into the sunset.” To the trembling Turner the Middle East is “scary enough” without wondering “whether the promised US security blanket is real or just smoke and mirrors.”

From the tone of Turner’s language this “security blanket” doesn’t sound like it’s merely about Iran but a commitment in perpetuity. Indeed, attaining the pitch of his indignation, Turner throws up his hands and says, “If the US wants out of the responsibilities it agreed to when it replaced Britain and France, to protect the oil monarchies and regional allies, it should just come out and say so.” Let’s admit just that. We should step away from this potentially endless protection racket—America should be a republic, not an imperial power reigning over the Middle East propping up puppets. We should second John Quiggin’s recommendation: “it is time to reconsider whether the US really has significant national interests in the region—and if so, what those interests are. Assumptions inherited from the 1970s are no longer an adequate basis for policy.” What a help this would be since no one ever does explain in depth what these precious interests are.

Perhaps because a thorough re-examination would show that at bottom there are none–none that require pervasive American political and military intervention, at any rate. Securing oil supplies was never necessary and, assuming it was, a new-found windfall of U.S. fuel now renders the Carter Doctrine obsolete. An America that becomes the largest oil producer on the planet has no cause to worry about who the Gulf States sell their product to. So why not get out of the Gulf (that goes for the Pacific too) and sell all the military bases? It’s not as if there will be a Middle East apocalypse in our absence. Hard to imagine, to be sure, but without the U.S. as a ‘protector’ the quarreling nations there might elect diplomacy instead of reflexively resorting to the sword. In spite of the outrage of Turner et al, between the Arab Awakening and the changing energy situation the U.S. can finally afford to pivot homeward.

The Regime Change Red Herring

On the first of November there was somewhat of a dust-up in the Persian Gulf when Iranian jets fired at a U.S. drone that debatably encroached over Iranian airspace. Fortunately nothing ever came of the incident–the drone wasn’t damaged as the fighters were likely sending warning shots and Washington chose to cover-up the incident, disclosing it a week later. Both sides clearly are keen on de-escalation and preventing all-out war. But if war is something the U.S. is desperately seeking to avoid, why are there drones spying on Iranian oil tankers to begin with? Why is a burgeoning buildup of the U.S. navy occurring in the Gulf, increasing the chances of an untimely encounter triggering a casus belli? Well, it’s on account of all the tensions caused by crippling sanctions on Iran’s civilian nuclear program. Iran’s nuclear efforts, however, cannot be the reasons for the sanctions when their research and development isn’t in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It’s enough to leave one wondering what insidious sort of game is being played here.

The name of the game is generally suspected to be regime change. Iraq was similarly hit with sanctions which were designed not to abate until Saddam Hussein stepped down and had he abdicated it still wouldn’t have sufficed since some sanctions remain to this day. But which nation is tenaciously pushing for the endless punishment of Iran? It’s not the United States that is this intent on waging economic warfare against Iran to the extent of changing that country’s government. When Washington babbles about regime change it’s to enrage the Iranians and give them bad press. What about the primary driving force of the sanctions campaign—the Israeli government? Do they seriously contemplate promoting that goal? Their rhetoric suggests it but, like Washington, Israel’s strategy follows a different trajectory.

Israel isn’t looking to do a thing to its most convenient bogy that distracts from difficult domestic issues. This was noticed earlier in the year by Israeli writer Akiva Eldar, who ruminated on the consequences of successfully precluding Iran’s nuclear ambitions. From the perspective of the current Israeli government, the results would be a veritable nightmare scenario. Calling the hypothetical elimination of this threat a “Pyrrhic victory” for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Eldar envisions in that event “world powers will turn toward other crises in the Middle East–including, of course, the Israeli occupation and its injustices. Without having to fear an Iranian nuclear bomb, Israelis are liable to get involved in the demographic and democratic issues in their own country.” Israel cannot afford to have Iran vanish from the international agenda and if that means, as Eldar implies, Netanyahu secretly fears a victory on the Iranian nuclear issue, then the prospect of Israel indirectly installing a docile, unmenacing regime in Iran is nil.

Lending more uncertainty to the purpose of these sanctions as an instrument of instigating economic misery and revolt was the high risk of the tactic backfiring. Indeed, the sanctions are patently failing, causing a rally around the flag effect which was predicted by analysts and therefore doubtless understood by Israeli officialdom to be the likeliest outcome. If they knew this, what are the sanctions really about? Israel’s actual aims were briefly betrayed by no less than its own President, Shimon Peres.

According to Gabe Fisher, Peres had “expressed fear that the Iranian situation would bring about some kind of renewed “Cold War”… but also spoke hopefully of a cold war that eventually “brings democracy to a new area.” Peres doesn’t fear this scenario; more like he would welcome it. Taking a leaf from Washington’s playbook, Israel is consciously fostering a Cold War against Iran as part of the Great Game of the Middle East and cloaking this in a regime change agenda to make the conflict easier for Israelis to swallow.

Besides assisting Israel in its contest with Iran for regional hegemony, this Cold War and its perennial tensions are calculated–as I have written–to prevent the Pacific Pivot. Since I made that estimation there have been some subtle signals to that effect. McClatchy’s Hannah Allam quotes in her piece about U.S. eagerness to extricate itself from the Middle East one Michael Signh who ominously warns policymakers that they “don’t have the choice of ignoring the Middle East.” Signh and others of his kidney in Washington think tanks devoted to the Middle East are petrified of the Pivot, scrambling haphazardly for any justification to evade a much-needed disengagement. “We have to recognize that we have enduring interests in this region,” Signh practically pleads to the State Department but concerning what those national interests are he has nothing to say. Such desperation among aficionados of America’s influence in the Mideast here means that alarms must be sounding even louder in Tel Aviv.

In the end, all the bawling over a nuclear Iran and talk of booting out the mullahs is a red herring. Israel (and the West too) does not seek war or a change of Iranian leadership lest a friendly Iran compel Israel to finally face down its thorniest dilemmas. Neither do they seek victory via a diplomatic resolution. No, the Iranian scapegoat must be left unscathed. The Israeli government is not alone in relying on this technique; in fact it is universally practiced by all governments, which are adept at inventing bêtes noires to draw attention away from domestic disputes that seem nearly insoluble.

Governments have traditionally depended upon a “splendid little war”–as John Hay affectionately christened the Spanish-American War—to pull the wool over the public’s eyes and a Cold War works just as well as a hot one. Hence whenever you read of one the latest laughable attempts to portray Iran as the Big Bad remember it can be reduced to politicians saying “What? Who cares if the country’s broke? Don’t you know Iran might decide to build some (useless) nukes (that would threaten nobody)!?”