The Real Story

Hagel Confirmation Fight Was Really About Bush Foreign Policy—and War

George W. Bush successfully pushed preventive war over deterrence, which led to disasters like Iraq. Hagel pointed out the heavy costs of such wars, suggesting containment and deterrence might be preferable—which angered hawkish Republicans eager for confrontation with Iran.

02.27.13 3:00 PM ET

In many ways, the struggle over Chuck Hagel that concluded yesterday afternoon was absurd. It was absurd that at a time when Beijing is clearly America’s greatest geopolitical competitor, the 12 Republican senators on the Armed Services Committee mentioned China a grand total of once during a seven-and-a-half-hour hearing on the challenges of being Defense secretary, and only then because Hagel allegedly had traveled there with a prominent critic of Israel.

It was absurd that during a hearing at which Israel was mentioned 137 times, senators angrily demanded that Hagel retract his claim that lobbying groups that focus on Israel wield disproportionate influence in the Senate. It was absurd that conservative activists with records of active hostility to gay rights attacked Hagel for being insufficiently supportive of gay rights. It was absurd that conservative journalists invented a fictitious pro-terrorist organization and demanded that Hagel prove he had never received money from it. And it was absurd that Rand Paul voted to confirm Hagel after having only hours before voted not to allow a vote at all.

But behind the absurdities, the Hagel fight represented one more phase in a struggle that has roiled Washington for more than a decade now: the struggle over the Bush doctrine. The real Bush doctrine was neither about democracy nor terrorism; it was about containment and deterrence. Throughout the Cold War, hawks had repeatedly questioned both strategies. Conservative intellectuals like James Burnham had urged that instead of trying to deter a nuclear Soviet Union, the United States go to war to prevent Moscow from getting the bomb in the first place. Gen. Douglas MacArthur had demanded that instead of containing communism on the Korean peninsula, America use the Korean War to roll it back. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan picked up on both threads, aiding anti-communist rebels in a bid to “roll back” communism in the Third World and promoting the Strategic Defense Initiative so the U.S. no longer had to rely on deterring a nuclear USSR.

After 9/11, Bush exploited the fact that the U.S. could not contain and deter a nonstate actor like al Qaeda to revive the right’s old argument against containing and deterring hostile states. “Deterrence,” he told a West Point audience in 2002, “means nothing against shadowy terrorist networks with no nation or citizens to defend. Containment is not possible when unbalanced dictators with weapons of mass destruction can deliver those weapons on missiles or secretly provide them to terrorist allies.”

In Washington, the Bush doctrine proved stunningly successful. Congress voted to authorize the Iraq War, and the United States quickly toppled Saddam Hussein. But in the world at large, events quickly revealed how hubristic the right’s old idea of preventive war actually was.

The entire premise of the Iraq War—that Saddam was developing nuclear weapons—turned out to be wrong. Once in charge of Iraq, the United States spent billions of dollars and lost thousands of American lives trying—and largely failing—to control it. Meanwhile, North Korea, an even more brutal and irrational regime, tested nuclear weapons and unable to launch another war, the Bush administration—without quite admitting it—fell back on the very policies of deterrence and containment it had tossed on history’s junk heap.

Yet in Washington, the Bush doctrine lived on. Despite lambasting the Iraq War itself, neither John Kerry in 2004 nor Barack Obama in 2008 challenged Bush’s core claim that containment and deterrence were outmoded. And because Obama didn’t, he was gradually forced—under pressure from Republicans in Washington and the government of Israel—to declare that if sanctions and diplomacy failed to prevent Iran from going nuclear, he would choose preventive war. 

All of which brings us to Hagel. The right’s core problem with Hagel wasn’t his alleged anti-Semitism. From Jerry Falwell to Glenn Beck to Rupert Murdoch, conservatives have overlooked far more egregiously anti-Jewish statements when their purveyors subscribed to a hawkish foreign-policy line. The right’s core problem with Hagel was that he had challenged the Bush doctrine. Against a Republican foreign-policy class that generally minimizes the dangers of war with Iran, Hagel had insisted that the lesson of Iraq is that preventive wars are dangerous, uncontrollable things. “Once you start,” he warned in 2010, “you’d better be prepared to find 100,000 troops.”

The point isn’t that Hagel “favors” containment and deterrence. Like virtually everyone else, he’d much rather Iran not get a bomb. But by reminding Americans of the potential costs of preventive war, Hagel was implying that containment and deterrence might be preferable. He was suggesting that if the U.S. can’t stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons short of war, it should make the same tradeoff that Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy made when they allowed the Soviet Union and China to get the bomb. This horrifies hawks for two reasons. First, some of them, echoing Benjamin Netanyahu, claim Iran represents an existential threat to Israel. But were that their sole concern, they’d pay more attention to the near-consensus view among top Israeli security professionals that although Iran poses a threat, it does not pose an existential one, in large measure because Iran’s regime, while vile, is rational when it comes to preserving its own existence.

The second reason hawks find Hagel’s view so frightening is that it concedes the limits of American power. Although Bush said that after 9/11 the United States no longer could afford to rely on the deterrence and containment of hostile states, what he really meant was that the U.S. no longer needed to rely on deterrence and containment, because it was now strong enough to prevent nuclear proliferation via force. For many hawks, conceding that the U.S. can’t do that means conceding American decline.

But the U.S. didn’t go into decline when it allowed Moscow and Beijing to end our nuclear monopoly. America didn’t go into decline because the Cold War was mostly a struggle between political and economic systems, and in that struggle nuclear weapons didn’t really help Moscow and Beijing. Nor have they done much for North Korea. Nuclear bomb or not, Iran’s failure to offer its people freedom and opportunity—and its efforts to deny the same to the people of Syria—will prevent it from becoming a regional hegemon. And America’s ability to maintain our own influence in the Middle East will depend above all on our fiscal strength and the legitimacy of our power, both things that attacking Iran could greatly damage.

Hagel didn’t say this during the hearings, which is too bad. And after the political beating he’s taken in recent weeks, it’s unclear whether he’ll feel free to express his skepticism of military action once in office. But one way or another, the struggle over the Bush doctrine will continue because more than 10 years after Bush’s speech at West Point, the Washington Republican Party still acts as if preventive war is an effective strategy against nuclear proliferation. And sometime in his second term, in all likelihood, Barack Obama will either have to challenge that view or let it take him down a path where Chuck Hagel knows in his bones America must not go.