Why Liberals Should Oppose Chuck Hagel

01.03.13 5:00 PM ET

Ali Gharib mischaracterizes my piece in The New Republic in many ways while also avoiding the main question of whether a right-wing Republican former Senator would be a better Defense Secretary than Michèle Flournoy. He begins by using insulting phrases (“cobbles together,” “misguided”), then imputes to me positions I don’t hold, and then misrepresents what I said. I appreciate that he and Peter Beinart have offered me a chance to reply. I can’t take up every quibble I have—and anyway, these back-and-forth blogging exchanges grow tedious quite fast, for the writers as well as the readers—so let me try to hit just a few.

The first point of my article was that many liberals—two of whom I cited—are supporting Hagel mainly, if not only, because people like Paul Wolfowitz, Dan Senor, and Bill Kristol oppose him. I consider this position perverse. I’ve never been a “hawk” myself, not even a “liberal hawk,” and I don’t share these men’s foreign policy outlook. But that they were wrong on Iraq, even grievously wrong, doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily wrong on Hagel. I consider their views irrelevant. (If Bill Kristol found a cure for cancer, some of these people would no doubt be touting the upside of cancer—or explaining that cancer is an unfortunate evil we can tolerate.) Is it really so controversial that Kristol’s provocations shouldn’t be a motivating factor in assessing Obama’s Cabinet choices?

The other key point I made is that the question at hand isn’t whether Wolfowitz, Senor, Kristol, et al., are correct about Hagel. It’s who should be the next Defense Secretary! Notably, Gharib and other Hagel defenders often don’t address whether Flournoy would be a better choice, or even a good choice. Nor do they consider other well-respected candidates whose names have been floated, such as Ash Carter. (Want someone to slash Defense budgets? Appoint Barney Frank.) That silence on the question of Flournoy’s merits, or Carter’s, or other candidates’, gives away the game.

Nor does Gharib address the question of why Democrats should continually reach into Republican ranks for Defense Secretaries. After all, Chuck Hagel is hardly Henry L. Stimson; he’s not even William Cohen. In 2012, as I noted, Americans preferred Obama and the Democrats on foreign policy to the Republicans. For the Democrats to be so judged has been a rare phenomenon in the post-Vietnam years, and the advantage shouldn’t be squandered by reviving the canard that the Republicans possess a national-security wisdom and authority that Democrats lack.

Indeed, while I have many criticisms to make of the Obama administration, as we all do, I believe that the Democrats served this country’s national security needs better in recent decades than the Republicans. In the Clinton years, and in the exile years of the Bush administration, a new generation of liberal policy experts and practitioners emerged, many of whom were neither in thrall to the neo-isolationism of the post-Vietnam Democratic party nor supportive of the Bush administration’s crusading adventurism in Iraq. These people have worked to reconcile goals such as international law and nuclear non-proliferation, genocide prevention and respect for sovereignty, a commitment to American global leadership and a fierce opposition to American bellicosity. (Gharib, oddly, allows no positions between Hagel’s realism and “cakewalk utopianism.” Maybe that’s why he misleadingly calls me a “liberal hawk.”) There’s no reason that the next Defense Secretary shouldn’t come from the ranks of this impressive body of professionals, now poised to assume top-tier positions in the administration. Or if there is such a reason, the burden to present it sits on those who press instead for a Republican with a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 84. Gharib and other Hagel supporters need to make the case against Flournoy as well as the case for Hagel.

Anyway, my hope in writing my New Republic piece was that Hagel’s defenders would shake themselves loose from their visceral obsession with dealing a symbolic defeat to the dreaded “neocons” and focus on these larger issues. Clearly, I failed to do so in Gharib’s case. Having discovered his previous half-dozen blog posts, I can only conclude that he seems to have made it his mission to defend Chuck Hagel from all comers, regardless of the merits of their arguments. He praises Hagel for a willingness to change his mind but shows no hint of changing his own. Gharib writes as if he sees himself as part of some larger Hagel damage-control team. “Other liberals writing in no less than the New Yorker, the New York Times op-ed pages, and, indeed, The New Republic have ably riposted along these lines already,” he writes. Surely Gharib’s opinions are his own, not produced by a team of bloggers and pundits dedicated to making ripostes, and re-posts, on Hagel’s behalf.

Of course, Gharib is entitled to stick to his guns. But he’s being unfair when he says that I “call for a return to the groupthink and hawkish conformity of the Bush era.” That’s ridiculous. On the contrary, I’m the one arguing against groupthink, saying liberals need to think for themselves, remind themselves of their principles and traditions, and break from the Washington insiders like James L. Jones, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, and Frank Carlucci (that quartet of names is all but synonymous with “groupthink”), and the pundits and bloggers who have lately conjured up the ludicrous picture of Chuck Hagel as a great statesman. Gharib is the one reveling in his alliance with all right-thinking pundits, noting at points that one or another of his fellow Hagelians have supposedly dispensed with my arguments. (They haven’t.) He joins in a mass romanticization of Hagel that reminds me of nothing so much of the left’s over-idealization of Obama in 2008. Supporters of Flournoy, in contrast, speak of her not in messianic but in practical terms.

Gharib also misrepresents me, perhaps because he misreads me, in my criticisms of liberals whose anger toward Bush and his abominable foreign policy has led them astray. Yes, I believe that the Iraq War caused a segment of the liberal punditocracy to lose its way on foreign policy. But Gharib seems to forget that the Iraq War was a Bush administration project, not one of liberals, not even of those liberal hawks who supported it. (It also was not a project of “neoconservatives.” None of the leading officers of the Bush administration—Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice, Powell—would have been called a neocon before the war, and virtually all straight-up “conservatives,” including Hagel, supported it as well.) Some liberal internationalists supported the war, too, of course, but still others opposed it, and it disserves liberalism to imply they were silent.

What I object to, obviously, isn’t the prospect of jettisoning the imprudent thinking that led the likes of Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt (and Chuck Hagel) to authorize the Iraq War—thinking that I suspect was in most cases more opportunistic than principled. What I decry is permitting this one error, however catastrophic, to blind liberals to the multiplicity of complex issues that need to always inform American foreign policymaking. The answer to whether and how the U.S. should intervene in a given crisis around the world is not always the same. Yet post-Iraq bloggers and pundits, especially those too young to remember anything else, seem to think that if you express concern about a nuclear Iran, you’re secretly hoping for another Iraq. That’s called being unable to adjust to new circumstances, or being stuck in the past.

Finally, Gharib doesn’t understand who’s following whose internationalist foreign policy. Democrats were internationalists decades before Daschle and Gephardt chose to fold their cards in the face of the 2002 elections and a public seeking to exorcise its post-9/11 humiliation. It was the Bush administration that cynically coopted Democratic rhetoric about democracy, law, and human rights. Support for democracy, law, and human rights has long distinguished liberal internationalism—both from the paleoconservatives’ isolationism (in which camp I would place Hagel) and from the neoconservatives’ penchant for unilateral and militaristic interventions. It’s foolish to let Bush’s cooptation and abuse of liberal ideals stop liberals from pursuing those ideals themselves.

There’s an old line that generals are always fighting the last war. Some bloggers, it seems, are guilty of the same.