RSS
The failure of the anti-Hagel campaign
The Democratic defections that conservatives coveted never materialized. And now many Republicans look like reflexively, dangerously aggressive people
 
Daniel Larison
Daniel Larison

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel's confirmation as secretary of defense was really never much in doubt, despite the clamorous complaints of a few vocal conservatives. Still, Hagel's likely confirmation has gained additional support in recent weeks that make his success all but certain. Despite the concerted efforts of a few outside Republican interest groups and a steady stream of hostile coverage from conservative media outlets, Hagel has received the public support of numerous former national security officials, diplomats, and retired military officers, as well as securing endorsements from several senators even before his hearing began today. Excluding members of the Bush administration, Hagel's nomination has been endorsed by every living former secretary of defense and secretary of state. Faced with an unprecedented campaign of character assassination and misrepresentation in the media, Hagel has become a rallying point for Americans across the political spectrum interested in greater prudence and restraint in the way the U.S. acts overseas.

While it shouldn't make a difference to the final outcome, Sen. Lindsey Graham's threat to put a hold on Hagel's nomination until outgoing Secretary Leon Panetta testifies on the Benghazi attack is a reminder that issues that are mostly irrelevant to Hagel's competence to run the Defense Department have dominated the debate over this appointment. Hawkish Republicans have argued that then-Sen. Hagel's relatively mild dissent on issues related to Israel and Iran disqualify him for the job. However, most of these have no bearing on the responsibilities Hagel will have at the Pentagon, and those that do should increase the public's confidence in Hagel rather than undermine it. This has underscored the overwhelmingly ideological nature of the campaign against him, which has had more to do with policing what current and future politicians can say on foreign policy than it does with selecting the right people to serve in the Cabinet.

So it appears that the anti-Hagel campaign has failed. The Democratic defections that conservatives coveted never materialized, and this week, the first Republican, Thad Cochran of Mississippi, announced his support for the nomination. The anti-Hagel campaign has mainly managed to waste its donors' money, and it has made the politicians that have sided with it appear foolish and bellicose, and all for the sake of "taking a stand" against a nominee who, lest we forget, is a Republican.

Still, at least 15 Senate Republicans have declared their opposition to Hagel or are reported to be leaning in that direction, which reflects just how committed a large number of the party's leaders still are to a hard-line foreign policy vision that has brought the GOP and the country nothing but woe for the last decade. The failure of the anti-Hagel effort could be a final straw that breaks the hold that the worst hard-liners have had on the party, but so far, there is not much evidence of that. In the meantime, the message that most people will receive is that leading Republicans have learned nothing from their past failures and seek retribution against those in their party that have.

After all, Hagel was one of the few national Republican figures who saw the potential pitfalls in Iraq before the invasion, and later came to recognize the full extent of the folly of the U.S. war there. Most of his Republican colleagues in Washington have still not fully reckoned with the disastrous decision to invade in 2003, and to make matters worse, they insist on holding Hagel's skepticism about the wisdom of attacking Iran against him. Each charge they make against Hagel for being too "soft" on Iran bounces back on them and marks them as the reflexively, dangerously aggressive people that they are. 

The good news for the country is that a competent and qualified nominee for the Defense post will almost certainly be approved by the Senate in the near future. Unfortunately, a large number of Hagel's fellow Republicans have done their best to use this confirmation process to inflict even more damage on their party's battered reputation on foreign policy and national security. Hagel's nomination should have been a chance for Republicans to start repairing the party's image in the eyes of the public. They are well on their way to squandering it.

 

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week