Fisking The Washington Post


It's a now familiar trope – fisking, i.e. going through a piece of writing line by line and arguing with it – and I used to do it much more in the past. But this Washington Post editorial is such a classic and says so much about Washington's assumptions, prejudices and institutional interests, it's time to do it again. So here goes. The WaPo is in italics. My take is not.

Former Senator Chuck Hagel, whom President Obama is reportedly considering for defense secretary, is a Republican who would offer a veneer of bipartisanship to the national security team. He would not, however, move it toward the center, which is the usual role of such opposite-party nominees.

What is left, right or center? Hagel is a rock-ribbed Republican realist in foreign policy, just as Bob Gates was. He will be a voice of prudence and restraint in an administration already committed to war if Iran dares to get a viable deterrent to Israel's hundreds of nuclear warheads (which we are not allowed to mention). And why are all cross-partisan appointments supposed to signal a move to the opposition's view of the world? Aren't they designed rather to implement the president's agenda with precisely a veneer of bipartisanship. The current Republican in the Obama administration, Ray LaHood, runs the Dept of Transportation. How was that a way to "move policy to the center"? So we start with a spurious assertion, and an attempt to label someone as toxic rather than argue against their views.

On the contrary: Mr. Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term — and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him.

The left? This implies that all realism in foreign policy is an artifact of the left, whereas, of course, it has always been more at home on the right. But again: note the attempt to stigmatize rather than argue: "well to the left" and "fringe". This is a hazing, not an argument.

The current secretary, Leon Panetta, has said the defense “sequester” cuts that Congress mandated to take effect Jan. 1 would have dire consequences for U.S. security. Mr. Hagel took a very different position when asked about Mr. Panetta’s comment during a September 2011 interview with the Financial Times. “The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated,” he responded. “So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.”

While both Republicans and Democrats accept that further cuts in defense may be inevitable, few have suggested that a reduction on the scale of the sequester is responsible.

What is packed into this sentence is revealing. Why is it "responsible" to exempt a massive part of federal spending from serious scrutiny, when taxes are being raised, entitlements cut, and the interest on the debt has become a de facto form of new taxation? Anyone not wedded to a hegemonic role for the US – long after the Cold War has ended – would look first to the Pentagon for savings, it seems to me. Why is it more responsible to cut healthcare for the elderly, rather than avoid another Iraq war disaster, remove bases, reform procurement, end wars, and keep an eye on the bottom line?

Or put this another way: in what universe is the fact that the US spends more on its military than the next ten countries combined deemed "reasonable"? When military spending is double what it was ten years ago, why is it unreasonable to question whether there is severe bloat and excess? (I cite Fallows here; his post is a must-read on the smear campaign)

In congressional testimony delivered around the same time as Mr. Hagel’s interview, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the sequester would lead to “a severe and irreversible impact on the Navy’s future,” “a Marine Corps that’s below the end strength to support even one major contingency” and “an unacceptable level of strategic and operational risk” for the Army.

But they would say that, wouldn't they? Just like all government departments seeking money, the Pentagon is a huge "military-industrial complex" in the words of that leftist, Dwight Eisenhower (how the current neocon WaPo would have hated him). I do not see why cutting defense by the same amount as we cut entitlements over the next ten years is somehow "irresponsible". For the people of America, it's a balanced approach. Yes, it's irresponsible to do it like the sequester, which maximizes the chance for dumb spending cuts. But why is an independent newspaper merely reprinting the self-interested budget posturing of a government department rather than questioning it?

Mr. Hagel was similarly isolated in his views about Iran during his time in the Senate. He repeatedly voted against sanctions, opposing even those aimed at the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which at the time was orchestrating devastating bomb attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq. Mr. Hagel argued that direct negotiations, rather than sanctions, were the best means to alter Iran’s behavior. The Obama administration offered diplomacy but has turned to tough sanctions as the only way to compel Iran to negotiate seriously.

The trouble with this line of argument is that Hagel's critique of the usefulness of sanctions is pretty strong. Greg Scoblete has a nuanced take on this and his post is worth reading in full. But this paragraph has to be addressed:

The trouble for Hagel's critics is that the sanctions regimes … have failed to produce the desired outcome. Iran and North Korea continue to advance their nuclear programs and missile programs, respectively. The Castros still rule Cuba. Assad remains in power in Syria and if he falls (or when he falls) no one will believe it was because the U.S. slapped sanctions on the ruling regime.

Greg understands sanctions as essentially moral stands that, for the most part, do not truly bring change. In that sense, of course, Hagel may be a useful corrective to the liberal interventionist instincts of a Susan Rice or a John Kerry. In other words, he would absolutely be a voice of conservative realism in an often more idealistic Democratic establishment. That strikes me as an asset for the president, just as Bob Gates, whose views were close to Hagel's, was a true rampart of the first term.

Mr. Obama has said that his policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that containment is not an option. Mr. Hagel has taken a different view, writing in a 2008 book that “the genie of nuclear weapons is already out of the bottle, no matter what Iran does.” The former senator from Nebraska signed on to an op-ed in The Post this September that endorsed “keeping all options on the table” for stopping Iran’s nuclear program. But Mr. Hagel has elsewhere expressed strong skepticism about the use of force.

We share that skepticism — but we also understand that, during the next year or two, Mr. Obama may be forced to contemplate military action if Iran refuses to negotiate or halt its uranium-enrichment program. He will need a defense secretary ready to support and effectively implement such a decision. Perhaps Mr. Hagel would do so; perhaps he would also, if installed at the Pentagon, take a different view of defense spending. (Mr. Hagel declined through a spokesman to speak to us about his views.)

Why is it "fringe" to have strong skepticism about the use of force in the Middle East after the fiscal and strategic catastrophe of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars? Why is it a "left" view that, after those sobering, budget-breaking failures against vastly exaggerated threats, we might resist another ground invasion and bombing campaign resting once again on what seems to me to be yet another vastly exaggerated threat? And if Hagel were defense secretary, he would not make the final call on war or peace. He would implement the president's policy or resign. But he would be in the conversation about war and peace and bring a critical insight to it: conservative realism.

And is it truly self-evidently in America's interests to wage war against another Muslim country in a way that will be interpreted in the region as yet another US-Israeli provocation against the Muslim and Arab world? If the US is to have a solid relationship with the emerging Arab democracies or semi-democracies, isn't it unwise to push all of them into the most radical anti-US camp, just because a beleaguered and economically bankrupt Iran wants to have some kind of deterrent against Israel's threats of military action? And don't tell me the Sunnis want this. Sunni dictators do. But if the Sunni masses have to pick between Muslims and Jews, whose side do you think they'll take?

What’s certain is that Mr. Obama has available other possible nominees who are considerably closer to the mainstream and to the president’s first-term policies.

Again, we have labels rather than arguments. "Considerably closer to the mainstream" is not a good thing if the mainstream (including the Washington Post) led us to endless, pointless, fruitless occupations and wars that have deeply wounded American credibility and credit, as well as costing up to a hundred thousand innocent lives? We need less mainstream thought in Washington, not more.

Former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy, for example, is a seasoned policymaker who understands how to manage the Pentagon bureaucracy and where responsible cuts can be made. She would bring welcome diversity as the nation’s first female defense secretary. Mr. Hagel is an honorable man who served the country with distinction as a soldier in Vietnam and who was respected by his fellow senators. But Mr. Obama could make a better choice for defense secretary.

Again that word: responsible. Who exactly is for irresponsible cuts? And is racial and gender diversity really a reason for an appointment to defense? What you see here is a Pavlovian response by Greater Israel supporters to ensure that Greater Israel's agenda is never impeded by America's strategic interests. They have every right to their opinion and to see the support for Greater Israel and the occupation as in the long-term interests of the US. They have every right to argue that just because they were grotesquely wrong about the Iraq war, they are obviously looking at Iran from the right perspective. Let that debate continue.

But that is not what these agitators have done. They have merely smeared Hagel already as an anti-Semite; they have described him as "having anti-Israel, pro-appeasement-of-Iran bona fides" or, in an echo of the WaPo "out-of-the-mainstream" views. Why? Because he is not a neoconservative who backs the permanent annexation of the West Bank, because he sees containment as an option for dealing with Iran, and wants to see if the US can develop stronger ties throughout the region, rather than having one alliance destroy the ability of the US to retain any others. He is willing to talk to enemies, like Hamas, when there is no feasible, pragmatic way forward without their engagement.

That is not "anti-Israel" – unless you think that not hewing completely to neoconservatism after the last decade is anti-Israel. I think a healthier relationship between the US and Israel in which we accept we have different interests and concerns would help Israel, rather than hurt it. (And how much more could Israel be hurt internationally than it has been by following the neoconservative path?) By all means, Hagel's heresies in Washington's consensus should be debated and challenged if he is nominated. We might even begin a better debate about what exactly America's role in the world should now be, when we have no serious global enemy, when we are crippled by war-debt, when our last occupations were catastrophes and when Israel is run by neo-fascists, callow opportunists and religious fanatics. This is a debate we need to have as a nation – but it is a debate some want to squelch with smears, labels and stigma.

Obama is president for one reason: he opposed the Iraq war. He should not rule out a cabinet member who would dare to be skeptical of an Iran war. He needs that voice in the conversation more than ever – and he should not surrender to bullies who want to stifle and rig it.

(Photo: Senator Chuck Hagel (L) enjoys a laugh with former US president Bill Clinton (R) as Hagel presents Clinton with the Atlantic Council's Distinguished International Leadership Award on April 28, 2010, in Washington, DC. The Atlantic Council is a non-partisan group with a mission of promoting international cooperation, particularly between the US and Europe. By Leslie E. Kossoff/AFP/Getty Images)