Chuck Hagel, the US secretary of defence, is doing the job he was asked to do. Since a contentious fight over his nomination earlier this year, the former senator has not surrendered to the terrorists, nor has he conducted joint military exercises with Iran and Hamas. Drones continue to drone and defence contractors continue to live in bigger houses than you. Hagel has, in fact, faithfully implemented the war policies of the war president who chose him, Barack Obama, who appears no more keen on earning that Nobel Peace Prize than during his first five years in office.
The only thing strange about this is there were a lot of people – some dumb, some not so dumb – who suggested maybe that would not happen.
A Nebraska Republican who served a dozen years in the Senate, Hagel earned a reputation as, if not a war sceptic – he voted for every bombing campaign he could while in that august war-stamping chamber, from Belgrade to Baghdad – at least a war realist. He was willing to say the occupation of Iraq was not going well before it was trendy and he never affected the cowboy, bring-’em-on jingoism of George W Bush. That’s nothing special, being something other than a dumb, warmongering caricature, but it was enough to make some hawks in Washington scared. And some doves excited.
His performance since taking office makes one wonder what the fuss was all about. On his first trip to the Middle East, Hagel did not link arms with democracy activists in Palestine and the Gulf, but formalised a $10bn arms deal to their anti-democratic rulers in Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. While sold (and demonised) as an advocate of diplomacy, Hagel also gave Israel the public go-ahead to launch a first strike on Iran, telling reporters that the Islamic Republic “presents a threat in its nuclear programme and Israel will make the decisions that Israel must make to protect itself and defend itself”.
“The bottom line is that Iran is a threat, a real threat,” Hagel declared.
Planning military operations against Iran is also Hagel’s “top priority” as defence secretary, or at least that is what he told New York Democrat Chuck Schumer during the confirmation process. Instead of cutting and running from Afghanistan, something the right feared and the left hoped he would hasten should he be confirmed, Hagel is helping plan the long-term occupation of the country, including the installation of at least nine permanent US military bases and stationing of more than 100,000 private contractors. Meanwhile, cruise missiles are still being fired into Yemen at “suspected militants”, otherwise known as brown-skinned males who have hit puberty. Troops that came home from Iraq and were lucky enough to miss out on Afghanistan are now being deployed to fight an increasingly bloody war on drugs in the Americas.
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In other words, the US empire is getting along just fine, for better or worse. Military spending may be cut in the future, but America will continue to spend almost as much on its armed forces as the rest of the world does combined. Standing armies tend to find ways to make themselves useful and politicians would rather slash Social Security anyway. The identity of the Pentagon’s top bureaucrat, it turns out, does not change much of anything. It makes even less of a difference than the party that controls the presidency.
“Hagel wants to end the war in Afghanistan” and “prevent war with Iran”, declared a blast email from the liberal list-builders at MoveOn.org. The former senator has a strong record of “taking on the military-industrial complex“, claimed VoteVets.org, another liberal group named after its website.
The right, meanwhile, was warning that Hagel would help his boss finally bring down Israel, the US military and probably Betty Crocker too. A writer in National Review declared Hagel an anti-Semite for not signing every pro-Israel letter that crossed his desk, breaking US Senate tradition.
Jennifer Rubin, a neoconservative columnist at the Washington Post, wrote that “the best argument against Chuck Hagel” was a speech he gave a few years back calling for a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict and other banalities, arguing his views – think a little before you embargo and bomb Iran; Israel is capable of error – are “contrary to the president’s policies”, which even if true would warrant the question: Yes, but whose views would he be implementing as policy, his or the president’s?
Much ado about nothing
What made the debate over Hagel particularly strange was the notion that it really mattered; that it would somehow alter the chain of command and do more than impact the small-talk in Washington for a week or two. Both liberal and conservative pundits acted as if there was a different Obama than the one we have seen since 2009, one who secretly sides more with the poor foreigners he is bombing than perhaps even the men and women in uniform he is ordering to bomb them. His pick of Hagel was a potential game-changer. The real, second-term Barack was beginning to show himself, the smart pundit told the cable news anchor. This stuff matters!
The president’s decision to pick was nothing less than “marvellous” wrote the Nation‘s Eric Alterman in a column, “Hooray for Hagel“, because it would expose the diminishing influence of the invade-everywhere right that opposed him. Josh Marshall, editor of Talking Points Memo and sometime-guest at the White House, claimed that “it signals a real closing of the door on the Bush era”. This savvy move, savvy observers noted, would remind Washington insiders that neoconservatism is unpopular the way every election since 2006 has not. Those were the careerist left’s talking points, anyway.
The mere presence of right-wing opposition was enough for others.
“That the neocons hate him is the best sign yet that Chuck Hagel may be the right person for the job,” said Robert Reich, a former labour secretary under President Bill Clinton. He was not wrong, but he also was not saying much.
For some on the left, the fight over Hagel’s nomination helped rekindle that long-gone magic of the 2008 campaign trail, back when some of the more earnest among us (led on by some of the more cynical) believed an Obama victory could lead to serious change in American foreign policy, instead of the record-busting military budgets and unilateral wars that we are now resigned to accepting as the best we can do. Hagel offered those discouraged by that reality a chance to be young again.
“Hagel represents the foreign policy that the majority of Americans voted for in 2008 and 2012: less war, more diplomacy,” wrote Robert Naiman, policy director of the left-wing group, Just Foreign Policy; “President Obama, we have your back“, the takeaway message from the petition he encouraged his fellow travellers to sign. Hearts were aflutter, but no one ever stopped to ask: if we assume Americans voted for less war in 2008 and 2012, can it be said that they actually got what they voted for? Because if the answer to that question is no – and it is – that should give one pause before embracing the same tactics that proved powerless to prevent where we are today.
Insofar as there was liberal criticism of Hagel, it was sort of irrelevant. MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow drew attention to Hagel’s dismal record on LGBT issues, which was fair enough, but did not touch his record on war and peace. And that was pretty much as far as the centre-left went, the script the same as with John Kerry in 2004: ignore all the warmongering blotches; point out that he’s a war hero; and point out that he’s not the other guy.
Second verse, same as the first
Like Hagel and Kerry before him, Obama was not loved by the neoconservative branch of Washington warmongers either. His victory did not bring less war in Afghanistan, though: it led to a near-tripling of the troops there and a doubling down on the drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen. Defeating the neocons by electing a guy who accepted the same principles for American intervention, if not necessarily the unbridled glee for bombing, led to a unilateral war in Libya and record amounts of military aid for Israel. The most peaceful thing the president did was honour a deal negotiated by his predecessor to leave Iraq, though he tried not to and ultimately left some 30,000 private contractors behind. There has not been a war with Iran, but then Bush did not invade there either, nor did he pursue anywhere near the level of “crippling sanctions” the Obama administration has imposed.
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Voting for Obama did not lead to “less war, more diplomacy”, but an institutionalisation of George W Bush’s worst national security excesses, now given a fresh face to defend them. Why then sink resources and one’s own credibility into the guy’s pick to administer his wars? These sorts of things might make for nice little moral victories, for a time, but the long-term effect is demoralising. Nothing seems to change but the name of the person disappointing, which is probably why people active in left-wing or anti-war politics often drop out after a few years. One can only take so much disappointment.
Perhaps it is time to quit settling and to consider whether the focus on Washington politics is achieving anything other than lending an occasional progressive coat of paint to an empire we ought to tearing down, not renovating. Instead of rallying behind a new war administrator for a president who has shown himself to be no friend of peace – and even more self-handicapping, convincing those who oppose state killing that they have an ally in power – opponents of war could, say, not do that. They could do the opposite of insanity: they could try something different.
In 2004, leaders of the anti-war left kept quiet about the people John Kerry helped kill in Iraq to focus instead on bragging about the people he helped kill in Vietnam. In 2006, they helped the Democrats take back Congress on a pledge of bringing an unpopular war to an end. In 2008, what was left of the anti-war movement devolved into a get-out-the-vote campaign for one of the pro-war candidates. By 2012, the anti-war movement did not exist, its members and credibility dashed on the rocks of the Obama campaign.
The sensible refrain of “anyone but Bush” and the Republican party was tried as an electoral strategy and the result was a “born-again neocon” with a less tarnished brand. Relations with Iran have never been more hostile. Drones are a household name, from Pakistan to Hoboken. Your kid has probably already flown one on his Xbox. Why would anyone think this president’s choice to oversee his wars would matter half a damn?
The left has continually made the mistake of falling for corporate-sponsored imperialists who are just not that into them, a myopic focus on short-term “pragmatism” and a never-ending campaign mode blinding many to the long-term reality that they are played for suckers by folks who would rather slash Social Security than the nuclear weapons budget. Perhaps if those who prefer peace and prosperity to war and structural unemployment quit looking for allies among their enemies – those who bail out Wall Street while bombing brown people on their own personal kill list – they might even start to be taken seriously outside of their own drum and social media circles. In the future, a liberal Democrat might even have reason to offer his base something more than a pro-war Republican. But there needs to be a reason.
It is time anti-war activists and leftists stop having the backs of pro-war politicians and their bureaucrats and start considering ways they can actually scare those in power into giving them what they want. Forget the petitions next time and consider a banner drop.
Charles Davis is a writer currently based somewhere in the Los Angeles underground.