Harvard’s Stephen M. Walt, someone who belongs to the ‘realist’ school of US foreign policy analysis, writes that the nomination of Chuck Hagel for the post of Defense Secretary does not point to a significant shift in the direction of president Obama’s foreign policy but does represent a widening in the range of such discussions.
The war of words about the nomination of Chuck Hagel will undoubtedly continue for some time, even though his confirmation by the Senate looks overwhelmingly likely at this point.
First, as I noted a week or so ago, I don’t think Hagel’s appointment implies any shift in policy direction. It’s been clear for quite some time what the general thrust of Obama’s national security policy is going to be: trimming defense, pivoting to Asia, rejecting preventive war with Iran, and striving to rebuild at home.
Second, the real question with the fight over Hagel is whether it is the beginning of a thaw in foreign policy discourse inside the American establishment. Until the Hagel case, ambitious foreign policy wannabes understood that one either had to be completely silent about the “special relationship” with Israel or one had to be an open and vocal supporter. The merest hint that you had independent thoughts on this matter would make you slightly suspect at best or provoke overt accusations that you were an anti-semite, effectively derailing any political ambitions you might have had. The result was an absurdly truncated debate in Washington, where one couldn’t even talk about the role of the Israel lobby without getting smeared. Indeed, one couldn’t even ask if unconditional U.S. support for Israel was in Israel’s best interest, let alone America’s, despite the growing evidence that its settlement policy was threatening its long-term future.
By making such ludicrous charges about Hagel, however, neoconservatives and other extremists made it clear just how nasty, factually ignorant, and narrow-minded they are, and how much they believed that the commitment to Israel ought to trump other foreign policy priorities. And it wasn’t just the absurd claim that Hagel was anti-semitic; it was the bizarre suggestion that a key job requirement for the U.S. Secretary of Defense was a deep and passionate attachment to a foreign country. The attacks on Hagel triggered a long-overdue reaction from a remarkably wide circle — including many staunch defenders of Israel — who were clearly disgusted by the smear tactics and aren’t willing to quail before them anymore.
Although he does not claim it, Walt and his University of Chicago colleague John J. Mearsheimer deserve a lot of the credit for enabling this wider discussion. Their 2007 book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy and the article in the London Review of Books that it was based on (see my two-part review that first discusses the impact of the lobby and then the composition of the lobby and how it operates) made the workings of the lobby a subject of much more open discussion.
As they themselves expected, they were promptly smeared as anti-Semites but they deliberately set out to take the bullet for the team (so to speak) and because they weathered the attacks and continued to speak out, they were able to create space for others to voice criticisms. They are an excellent example of the benefits of academic tenure that I wrote about earlier. Walt and Mearsheimer are both tenured full professors at prestigious universities and thus did not have to fear losing their jobs by taking a politically controversial stand. They could not have done what they did if they had been employees of think tanks, where raising money by currying favor within the political and media establishment is of prime importance.
Chuck Hagel is a conservative politician who fits quite comfortably within the US imperial political consensus of thinking that the US has the right to impose its will on the rest of the world, using force if necessary. His ‘problem’ was that he did not see US interests as identical with Israel’s and said so openly. But expect him during the senate confirmation process to express his unswerving support for Israel as the price to be paid for getting approval.