A Liberal Critique Of Hagel?

Ali Gharib on how liberal hawks are stuck in the past.

David Greenberg's essay in the New Republic against Chuck Hagel's potential nomination to serve as Barack Obama's defense chief cobbles together what is meant to pass as a liberal critique of the former Nebraska senator. By turns misleading and misguided, it completely ignores Hagel's suitability to both Obama's existing foreign policy and the changing circumstances of the world, particularly the Middle East. His headline explains much of Greenberg's line of argument: "Hagel, the Enemy of Liberals' Enemies, Shouldn't be Their Friend." He refers here to opposition against Hagel by Washington's leading neoconservative lights, most notably Bill Kristol. For some Hagel defenders, though, it is not that the right-wing attacks on Hagel that makes him desirable, but rather those positions for which the right-wing attacks. Greenberg, however, says liberals should listen to conservatives: "Hagel’s new friends on the left fail to see that his worrisome positions are rejected not only by many Republicans but also by Barack Obama, who has repeatedly insisted he will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, who has proved himself a reliable friend of Israel, and who has firmly refused to reward Hamas with recognition," he writes, as if presidential advisers should not dissent. In this sense and others, Greenberg's is a call for a return to the groupthink and hawkish conformity of the Bush era.

There's Greenberg's apparent assessment that Hagel would not be a "reliable friend of Israel." Striking the note about Obama's "refus(al) to reward Hamas with recognition"—an over-simplified rendering of a position Hagel's signed onto about engaging to encourage moderation—makes for an awkward piece of evidence when not twelve hours later the Israeli president Shimon Peres opened the door to conditional talks with Hamas. (Today, a former Mossad chief noted that Israel already deals with the group.) And Greenberg revives Hagel's use of the phrase "Jewish lobby" while ignoring that Hagel reportedly says he misspoke when he uttered the words—forget about mentioning that Jewish organizational honcho Malcolm Hoenlein used the phrase recently without missing a beat. 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. Greenberg dismisses these defenses (ignoring his colleague John Judis altogether), and credulously lumps in even the silliest—which happen to be the loudest—right-wing attacks as being for "the most sincere of reasons."

I already dealt with the exaggerated distance between Hagel and Obama on Iran when that other bastion of liberal hawkishness, the editorial page of the Washington Post, raised it. This much, though, bears restating: the only places where Hagel differs with Obama are tactical (for instance, opposing mindlessly-enacted unilateral sanctions as a means of leverage with Iran) and, most notably, over skepticism about the efficacy of a military strike. Like Obama, Hagel prefers a negotiated deal with Iran that averts both nuclear weapons proliferation and war. But while keeping the military option on the table, Hagel's not been shy in encouraging something Obama would be well served to undertake: an open national discourse about whether or not an attack can even work to "prevent" a nuclear Iran. (Hagel's former colleagues in the Senate—conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats alike—failed this week to even mandate a report about the possible consequences of an attack.) Greenberg laments those leftists "eager to minimize the dangers of a nuclear Iran," silently deferring to those who minimize the dangers and utility of attacking the Islamic Republic—if they'll discuss it at all. The left is right to celebrate these features of Hagel's thinking post-Iraq war: that acquiescence to neoconservative—or liberal—hawkish utopianism ("cakewalk") yields disastrous consequences.

But instead Greenberg wants to revert. "Since the Iraq War, a sizable and apparently growing segment of the liberal punditocracy has lost its way on foreign policy," he remarks, as if the way that led liberals to support the war wasn't worth losing. Liberal rejection of anything promoted by the right, Greenberg goes on, "seemed to turn many progressives into sour realists, intent on abdicating any American leadership role in the world, even a liberal and humane one." But it was exactly liberal abdication to "sincere" hawkishness that got us in to the mess, which in turn squandered America's soft power and its "leadership role in the world." It was exactly the failure of Bush's government to facilitate an honest national discussion about attacking Iraq—abetted by silent liberals—which made that war possible. Shouldn't liberals want Hagel to be a sobering voice in the president's ear? Last week, Matt Duss wrote that as the world changed, so too did Chuck Hagel. It was his right-wing critics who hadn't adjusted to circumstances. The same, it seems, might be said of some liberal hawks.