If nothing else, last week’s Senate hearings on Chuck Hagel’s fitness to run the US Defense Department exposed the deep divide that separates Washington’s world from the real one. At one point in the marathon session, for example, Republican Ted Cruz aired clips from an Al-Jazeera interview on a large video screen in which Hagel, according to Cruz, allowed that Israel had committed wartime atrocities. As the footage was all but inaudible, Cruz demanded of Hagel directly: “Do you think the nation of Israel has committed war crimes?”
Needless to say, posing such a question to Israel’s neighbors would be like asking if hummus is made from chickpeas. Yet there it was, flapping about the Senate floor like a dying mackerel, leaving Chuck Hagel to dignify it with a response.
Hagel, himself a former Senator who wants to be secretary of Defense badly enough to lie to himself as well as the nation, answered in the negative. Here was the unsavory toll demanded by Congress of decent souls in pursuit of power and influence: betray one’s convictions—particularly when it comes to the Middle East—and suffer fools.
For more than seven hours of testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a star chamber of warmongers, nativists, and Likudnik proxies with blood on their hands from the wars they co-authored, Hagel did just that. The decorated Vietnam War veteran, a twice-wounded US Army sergeant and a Republican Party stalwart, endured bitter and often boneheaded questions from the committee’s most prominent conservatives. They implied Hagel was an enemy of Israel, that he would unilaterally dismantle America’s nuclear arsenal, and that he was too squeamish to use armed might to deny Iran a nuclear deterrent of its own.
Too often Hagel, struck by the force of Republican animosity, disowned much of the foreign policy pragmatism that would make him an ideal Defense secretary. Emphatic assurances of fealty to Israel and the bomb and a loathing of Hezbollah and Iran, however, only emboldened his attackers. The soldier’s feral instinct failed him, and his nomination could be in peril.
What is so striking about these exchanges, however, is how utterly estranged from reality Hagel’s Republican tormentors were, with John McCain, channeling the ghostly energy of an entire Prussian general staff, leading the charge. McCain (another veteran of America’s Vietnam quagmire) and Hagel famously fell out over the latter’s refusal to support the US-led war in Iraq. Specifically, he criticized the Bush administration’s plan to “surge” troops into the country in 2007. McCain, inclined as he is to keep fighting lost wars, demanded Hagel admit he was wrong in opposing the build-up. When the defendant refused, the Arizona Republican accused him of being on “the wrong side” of history.
It was a ham-fisted attempt at self-redemption, as if a tactical measure of dubious significance vindicated a war—which McCain himself did so much to promote—that was appallingly ill-advised, fueled a civil war that consumed hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, and left Iraq in the hands of a corrupt and authoritarian regime with close ties to Iran.
By several counts, Israel was mentioned at least 166 times during the hearings, Vietnam nearly 170 times and Iran 144 times. Afghanistan, where US troops are still fighting, and along with Iraq is thought to be the principal cause of endemic suicide in the ranks, received only fleeting references. The fighting in Mali and the alleged Islamic radicalization of North Africa—including the instability in Libya for which Congressional hawks, led by McCain, are largely responsible—were mentioned only a half-dozen times. Similarly glossed over was North Korea’s recent veiled threat to nuke the continental United States.
Ignored entirely was the need to reform the Defense Department, America’s largest and most wasteful bureaucracy. Its health insurance and pension fund obligations are unsustainable and its reliance on outsourcing has created a nebula of murky accounting that, according to the Pentagon’s own inspector general, is costing the country hundreds of billions of dollars each year in unsupported outlays.
The Hagel hearings should have provided a thoughtful examination of America’s limitations at home and its commitments abroad, both of which are growing at a pace that makes empire as untenable as it is immoral and self-destructive. With interest rates at record lows, the price of financing American indebtedness has nowhere to go but up. That means military planners, until now awash in resources, must now make choices. Can the US really contain China, its largest creditor, as a ten-year arms build-up in Asia clearly suggests it intends to do? Can it afford to shoulder the national security burden of its allies, almost all of which are rich and industrialized, in Asia and Europe? What are the consequences of the nation’s increasingly militarized economy, in which costly weapons programs that even the Pentagon believes are obsolete are kept alive because they provide jobs in the districts of powerful legislators?
Such questions, informed by real-life imperatives, deserve to be thoughtfully posed and answered. Last week, militarist politicians chose instead to enrich their political fortunes in service to foreign agencies.