I don’t generally link to the Daily Beast (for many and various reasons) but led by Bruce Bartlett’s twitterizing, I got to Peter Beinart’s clear, succinct description of what was really at stake in the Hagel nonsense:
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.
Beinart goes on to point out the absurdity of the neo-con fear that acknowledging the fact of limits to power equals American decline.* That’s another way of saying (a) read the whole thing and (b) there is a very depressing realization (familiar to readers of this blog) that sinks in should yo do so: Beinart has achieved here nothing more than a well-stated penetrating glimpse of the obvious.
Or to put it another way: if America is in fact in decline then the cause isn’t that some of our leaders have noticed that the capacity to blow up any building anywhere in the world is not the same thing as exercising power to an end beyond rubble. Rather, it is that so many in our media and political elites can’t or won’t.
*The concept of imperial or superpower decline is tricky. Are we in decline if we continue to grow in wealth and capability, but other nations do so with enough vigor to approach levels that in the unique circumstances of the post-World War II decades we could occupy on our own? Britain, shorn of empire, is wealthier, more equal, more comfortable now that it has ever been for the great bulk of its citizens, for all that Cameron and Osborne are trying to undo some of that. Are we impoverished if we advance into a world in which the Chinese middle class, still a small proportion of that country, may soon achieve economic status equal to our own?
As I say, tricky. One more thing, though. Such caveats to the threnody of decline do not in themselves mean that we cannot in fact propel ourselves into an actual, unmistakable loss of power, influence and so much relative economic standing that the conditions of national autonomy and agency the US now possesses will erode. Could happen; may be happening. But not because Chuck Hagel thinks it makes sense to ask first what one gets out of sending 100,000 American troops to the far side of the world.
Image: Michael Sweerts, Soldiers Playing Dice, c.1655.