Karl Marx once declared, elaborating on a quote by Friedrich Hegel, that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. How fitting, then, that another Hagel—Chuck—is illustrating the adage today. In the Bush era, Republican foreign policy produced tragedy. Today, the Hagel nomination reveals the degree to which Republican foreign policy is producing farce.
It started at Hagel’s confirmation hearings. The next defense secretary’s most immediate overseas challenge will be withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in a way that minimizes the chances of it again becoming a base for al Qaeda terrorism. A few years ago, when Republican senators supported a “war on terror” of indefinite length and astronomical cost, they would have called Hagel’s support for rapid troop withdrawal a threat to American security and a stain upon American honor. But with Americans tired and embittered by the Afghan war, and the “war on terror” more generally, the GOP’s blood and guts routine no longer works. So Republicans have decided that Afghanistan doesn’t exist.
In his acceptance speech at last summer’s Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney never mentioned the Afghan War. During Hagel’s seven and a half hours of questioning by the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, the country where 66,000 American troops are still fighting, and dying, was mentioned 27 times. How many mentions did it receive from the Armed Service Committee’s 12 Republican members combined? Four.
Then there are the other big issues facing the Pentagon? Drones, which have become the Obama administration’s signature (and highly problematic) tool for fighting al Qaeda? Zero mentions. (And yes, shame on the Democrats, too). Cyber warfare, which outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently warned could “paralyze the nation” in a terrorist attack “as destructive as…9/11”? Sixteen mentions, of which two came from Committee Republicans. China, the only country on earth that can challenge America’s superpower status, and the power against which America is refocusing its military might? Five mentions, of which one came from a Senate Republican. And in what context did that lone mention occur? It occurred when newly elected Texas Sen. Ted Cruz asked Hagel if he had traveled to China with Chas Freeman, a former American diplomat known for critical views toward, you guessed it, Israel.
Republican senators have every right to express their devotion to the state of Israel (178 mentions), and their belief that America must help Israel prevent the development of a nuclear weapon by the government of Iran (171 mentions). But even if you wholeheartedly subscribe to the GOP’s perspective on the showdown between Jerusalem and Tehran, there’s something farcical about a party whose senators interrogate a potential defense secretary while ignoring almost everything he will do on the job.
In the 10 days since Hagel’s hearing, the GOP campaign against him has descended even deeper into triviality. Republicans on the Armed Services Committee are now refusing to vote on Hagel’s nomination until he provides evidence that no organization he was affiliated with received foreign funding over the past decade. The committee had already asked Hagel whether during the last 10 years he personally had “received any compensation from, or been involved in any financial or business transactions with, a foreign government or an entity controlled by a foreign government.” His answer: no. But now, even though Hagel has disclosed all the information required of past secretary of defense nominees, Republicans are demanding that he prove that no company or non-profit he has been involved in has received any foreign funding either. That may be impossible, since as Hagel explained, “the information…is legally controlled by the individual entities and not mine to disclose.”
The Republicans’ request, as American Enterprise Institute congressional expert Norman Ornstein told my Open Zion colleague Ali Gharib, is “unprecedented,” as well as “ridiculous and outrageous,” especially since there’s zero evidence that Hagel—a decorated Vietnam veteran—has ever subverted the interests of the United States in service of a foreign power. But it fits the fundamentally unserious way in which Senate Republicans have handled the Hagel nomination—a nomination they’re determined to scuttle so long as it doesn’t require them to actually engage with most of the big issues facing American foreign and defense policy today.
But the anti-Hagel effort hit rock bottom on Sunday when South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham announced that he would place a hold on both Hagel’s nomination, and the nomination of John Brennan to head the CIA, until the White House answers more questions about last September’s attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
Putting aside the fact that there’s already been an independent inquiry into the Benghazi disaster, and that Hillary Clinton has already testified on the matter, the truly astonishing aspect of Graham’s move is its smallness. Yes, Benghazi was a human tragedy. Yes, the Obama administration may have failed to provide adequate security and may not have adequately shared information about the attack with the public. But holding up key national security appointments because of the Benghazi affair is absurd, because Benghazi has barely anything to do with the larger currents of Barack Obama’s foreign policy.
The larger currents of that foreign policy are Obama’s desire to cut the defense budget, his effort to refocus American foreign policy toward Asia, his skepticism about new American military interventions, his increased reliance on drones as a means of battling al Qaeda, his plans for reducing nuclear stockpiles, his relative optimism about the Arab Spring, and his belief that the “war on terror” should occupy a peripheral, not a central, place in American strategy overseas.
In important ways, this approach differs from the one pursued by George W. Bush, who repeatedly called jihadist terrorism the defining foreign policy challenge of our time—akin to Nazism and communism—and who showed a greater willingness to use military force, including ground troops, to battle it. Until the day before yesterday, most Republican senators lustily endorsed Bush’s view. But now that Bush is gone, and his policies are unpopular, those Republican senators have no alternative worldview. With the exception of Iran, and perhaps nuclear weapons, they’re not even trying to propose alternative policies to the one that Obama and Hagel propose. They’re simply pandering to right-wing Israel supporters, and trying to gin up scandal on issues of no larger significance.
The Republican Party has inherited from George W. Bush a foreign-policy doctrine that assumes virtually infinite reserves of money and manpower. Refashioning that doctrine to fit an America where both commodities are in much shorter supply would require a serious intellectual reexamination—an examination that the GOP shows little interest in conducting since the same people who ran Bush foreign policy are still, by and large, running Republican foreign policy today. So instead, Republican senators have launched an attack on Hagel filled with sound and fury but signifying very little. It’s not political tragedy. It’s not even real political drama. It’s political farce.