David Bromwich writes: It looks as if Barack Obama is about to withdraw the idea of nominating Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense. To stick with Hagel against substantial (though at the beginning, surmountable) resistance would mean declaring one of his own apparent commitments to be unshakable. The pattern of Obama’s career and character, however, goes the other way. His preferred method has been (a) to give in silently and let the issue trail off; or (b) make an announcement of temporary surrender in the foreseeable future; or (c) string out negotiations until the farthest-out solution seems a possible but clearly dangerous option, and his own ratification of centrist conventional wisdom appears the result of profound reflection.
Of the three methods listed above, (a) was the protocol for announcing and a few months later scuttling the closure of Guantanamo, (b) was used to defer any action on global warming, and (c) for escalating the Afghanistan war after giving the generals the time and opportunity to leak their plans for a larger escalation. The apparent exception is the health care law whose passage lasted the long year between Obama’s inauguration and its signing in early 2010. But the exception proves the rule: after the signing, Obama said and did little to defend the Affordable Care Act, and according to his advisers he expected it to be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. (That expectation was itself, of course, a reason for his silence. Obama does not like to be seen to struggle against “reality.”)
Chuck Hagel would have been a superb secretary of defense. There is not another American of high reputation in public life who has proved himself so free of the disastrous illusions that led to the Global War on Terror. Is there any consolation in the loss? Obama’s first choices for state and defense were Susan Rice and Hagel. The sickly trial-balloon method — so susceptible to the gradual buildup of an intimidating opposition — has ended by sinking them both. They were, however, contradictory choices in what they stood for: much harder to reconcile than, say, Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton. Rice is a careerist of the national security elite. Her only idiosyncrasy, if one can call it that, is excessive enthusiasm for “humanitarian intervention” and the remote-control wars that such enthusiasm breeds. Hagel, by contrast, is an independent thinker and a dissident, far more than the president himself — a man so alienated from the Republican war madness and other kinds of madness that he walked away from his party in 2008. A Kerry-Hagel team would have been interesting; but Obama’s original choice was the incoherent combination of Hagel and Rice. [Continue reading…]