The insignificance of Hagel’s arrival and departure

Peter Beinart writes: When I heard that Chuck Hagel was leaving as secretary of defense, I called someone close to the administration to try out the explanation bubbling up on Twitter: that Hagel had been hired to bury the “war on terror” and was being replaced because the White House now needed someone who wanted to vigorously prosecute it. My source sighed. “You guys tend to over interpret these things,” he said.

Oh yeah, I thought. I should know that by now. When Hagel was chosen I wrote a 3,000-word essay claiming his nomination “may prove the most consequential foreign-policy appointment of his [Obama’s] presidency. Because the struggle over Hagel is a struggle over whether Obama can change the terms of foreign-policy debate.” In one sense, that claim was correct. Hagel’s confirmation did spark a large, nasty fight over the terms of American foreign policy. Hawks blasted Hagel for casting doubt on military action against Iran and for criticizing what he called, inaccurately, “the Jewish lobby.” Hagel’s defenders argued that by nominating him, Obama was declaring independence from a foreign-policy establishment that had not reconsidered the assumptions that led America into Afghanistan and Iraq. And we argued that by nominating someone who had spoken uncomfortable truths about the influence groups like AIPAC wield in Congress, Obama was combatting the culture of hyper-caution that stymied provocative thinking inside the Democratic foreign-policy elite.

It was an interesting debate. It just didn’t have a lot to do with what Hagel would do as secretary of defense. Intoxicated by the symbolic significance of a Hagel appointment, both his defenders and his adversaries tended to overlook one mundane but crucial fact: That in the ultra-centralized Obama White House, Hagel’s foreign-policy views wouldn’t matter all that much. [Continue reading…]

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1 thought on “The insignificance of Hagel’s arrival and departure

  1. hquain

    Let me confess to sincere puzzlement over the attitude expressed in this piece. The implication throughout seems to be that White House control over foreign policy is somehow a bad thing. And a novel thing. I rather like the idea that somebody is in charge — not always an impression one receives from the current administration.

    As with all such self-regarding, dark-sourced punditry, one is tempted to respond like Horatio: “So have I heard and do in part believe it.”

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