Right to Fight

February 16, 2013 9:29 a.m.

It is ironic that the Hagel drama is playing out just as the national commentariat is debating whether Barack Obama’s national security policy truly differs from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

As the Hagel story has played out, we’ve focused on tactics and gambits than on just why there’s such intense opposition to this nomination — Cruz/McCarthy, Infofe, faux LGBT groups and the constant drumbeat about Iran and Israel from groups tied to Bill Kristol.

Many assume that what is behind all of this is Israel. But I don’t think that’s quite right. At least it’s not the core issue. And neither is Iran. Israel’s been the focus because it’s the most inflammatory and cross-cutting foreign policy driver of US politics. But it’s only part of the equation.To understand what’s going on here you have to go back at least a decade. What happened in 2001 had roots in what happened in the 1990s and back even into the 1980s. But it was still a big departure, one that began before 9/11 but was heavily accelerated by it.

This is why the idea that Obama has continued Bush’s policies is so wrongheaded and frankly inane. Basically everything Barack Obama has done since coming into office has been to unwind the thicket of commitments, practices and open wars begun under George W. Bush. People who don’t know the policies and the agendas in detail can miss this. Others are just tendentiously obtuse and pretend that unwinding these policies would have meant ending the war on al Qaida or making rapid withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some of this unwinding began under Bush himself, which was the logic of holding Bob Gates over at the Pentagon. Obama promised a more aggressive push in Afghanistan and making counter-terrorism the centerpiece of his policies while getting out of the business of upending and trying to run countries like Iraq. That’s why Obama’s drone policy — for all the criticisms directed against it, legitimate and illegitimate — is entirely consistent with what he set out to do and has continued to do: prosecuting a war on al Qaeda and related extremist groups in a way that was cheaper, more lethal and with a far lighter military footprint than what preceded it.

Now we’re now out of Iraq. We’re moving towards major if not total withdrawal from Afghanistan. So we stand at a crossroads between two very different visions of the country’s future — its security challenges and economic future. Let’s start with what we might incompletely call the Bush/neoconservative approach. It is a belligerent unilateralism, a vision based on an abundantly powerful and yet deeply endangered America, and — very significantly — one that sees almost all the big issues and future security of the country emanating out of the zone of conflict stretching from North Africa into Pakistan. In other words, it’s about oil, Islam, the Middle East and Israel.

The people around Obama have a different take on goals, threats and tactics. It’s not just that we can’t continue — either in security or fiscal terms — with open-ended occupations of Middle Eastern countries or hapless efforts to ‘transform the region’. It’s that the Middle East is fundamentally more yesterday’s news than tomorrow’s and that we need to be in the business of making it more yesterday rather than less. The Persian Gulf is still the choke point for the world energy supply. Any American President and foreign policy will focus on that for the foreseeable future. But more oil is now being drilled in the United States; and the world is trying to move away from oil. So for the last decade, as the US has bled itself dry in the Near East completely different futures are being created by the so-called BRIC countries, with the US at risk of being left behind.

The details of this alterative vision are beside the point for the purposes of this post. But it’s very different. And that’s what the Hagel fight is really about. Hagel in himself is no singular figure. But he’s part of the Scowcroft/Brezinzski et al. running critique of Bush era foreign policy. It’s not just that he didn’t vote for this or that declaration about the Iranian government or doesn’t toe the Likud line on the Israel/Palestine front. He’s one of those people who just don’t think these issues should be the be all and end all of our role in the world at all. And that’s extremely threatening to some people.

Now, President Obama was elected 4 years ago. He has whatever policies he has. And he’ll be there for the next four years. But who he chooses is important. Not because Chuck Hagel is going to be guiding policy — this White House is notorious for keeping cabinet secretaries on a very short leash. But nominating Hagel and getting him confirmed says that this is ‘mainstream’, that this is the President’s direction and this is the direction he’s going to go in.

That would be significant in any foreign policy struggle. But defining the boundaries of acceptable opinion is very important to the people opposing Hagel — drawing redlines around acceptable actions and statements. They’ve been highly successful marking these lines in the past. And Hagel has crossed a number of them.

That’s the rub of this.

Lots of other factors add fuel to this fire. Senate Republicans simply don’t like that one of their own is crossing the aisle to serve with Obama. Deepening the offense, he abandoned their orthodoxies during his latter years in the Senate and afterward. Hyper-concern about the politics of the Israel across the partisan divide plays a big role. And you’ve got the unremarkable desire for the party that lost the presidential election to get in some punches and recoup some dignity. But the real driver of this drama is that it signals a real closing of the door on the Bush era.

I don’t get the sense that half the senators going nuts over Hagel’s nomination even grasp or care about this backstory. And votes about Iranian revolutionary guards or comments about the Israel lobby are only flame throws and incitement. But the real root of this conflict is about something that is genuinely a big deal. And it’s totally understandable why the folks who mobilized against it are fighting as hard as they are.

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