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Hagel’s Hruska defence

Will America’s next defence secretary vindicate the cause of the mediocre man?
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First Published: Fri, Feb 08 2013. 03 37 PM IST
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Updated: Fri, Feb 08 2013. 04 01 PM IST
Once upon a time, a Republican senator from Nebraska spoke up for the right of mediocrities to occupy eminent positions of public trust.
“Even if he were mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers,” said Sen. Roman Hruska in 1970 as a defence of G. Harrold Carswell, Richard Nixon’s ill-fated nominee to the supreme court. “They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance? We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters and Cardozos.”
Right. And at the Pentagon, we can’t have all Stimsons, Forrestals and Marshalls. Which is why America needs another senator from Nebraska to vindicate the cause of the mediocre man.
That man is Chuck Hagel.
Until his confirmation hearing last week, Hagel was touted as a courageous tribune of the hard but necessary truth. His nomination, according to one sycophant, “may prove to be the most consequential foreign policy appointment of (Barack Obama’s) presidency.” He was hailed as a latter-day Dwight Eisenhower, a military hero mindful of the appropriate limits of US power, a real American bold enough to tell the chicken-hawk neocon pretenders where they could stick it.
As for his claim about the Jewish lobby intimidating people, it was no more than a gaffe in the sense of accidentally telling the naked truth. “I am certain,” said another prominent Hagel defender, “that the vast majority of US senators and policymakers quietly believe exactly what Hagel believes on Israel.” To take offence at the suggestion that a nefarious assortment of Jews plays the Congress like a marionette was to risk accusations of McCarthyism.
After the hearings, what’s left of that defence?
Courageous Chuck is done for. He simply folded in the face of questions about his previous positions on Israel, Iran, nuclear Global Zero, Pentagon overspending and so on. If his repentance is sincere, then the ideological iconoclasm that was supposed to be his great recommendation as secretary of defence is no more. If he’s insincere, then he’s little more than a dissembler trying to advance his career.
Deep-thinking Chuck is no more, either. His befuddlement on Obama administration policy towards Iran—the flubbed remark about containment, the passed note, the reflub, the coaching from committee chairman Carl Levin—was almost the least of it. He didn’t even seem to grasp the details of the 2011 Budget Control Act that contains the infamous sequester and will be the very thing he’ll need to wrestle with immediately if confirmed.
Chuck-in-charge is also not in the cards. “I won’t be in a policymaking position,” he said, astonishingly, to a question from West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin. To be the secretary of defence, you see, is a bit like being the grand marshal at an independence day parade: You wear a sash, you hold a baton, you say a few words, you smile, wave and walk the route.
It says something about the political state of play that Hagel’s defenders are now whispering that he just won’t matter all that much. Serious defence policy will be run by the grown-ups in the White House, people like Ben Rhodes, Valerie Jarrett, Denis McDonough and, of course, the president. That’s reassuring.
It also says something about the political moment that Republicans seem prepared to let Hagel through now that they have drawn a bit of blood. Nebraska’s Mike Johanns and Mississippi’s Thad Cochran have declared their support for Hagel. John McCain opposes a filibuster on the grounds that the president deserves an up-or-down vote on his nominee. In theory that’s right and, in a sense, honourable. But a political party that can’t press a political advantage when it has one is a loser. And who wants an opposition that thinks its honour lies in losing honourably?
In the meantime, it will come as a comfort to America’s enemies to know what they’ll be getting in a second Obama term.
One is a cabinet without a single hawk or even semi-hawk, whereas only a year ago there were three: Leon Panetta, David Petraeus and even Hillary Clinton. Another is a secretary of defence with an unsteady grasp of a department that may, within a month, be facing a historic and blunt reduction in its budgets. A third is a vice-president who has just agreed to yet another round of negotiations with Tehran. And finally there’s a president whose second inaugural address was entirely devoted to calling America home for the collective tasks he believes lie ahead.
Ask yourself how Vladimir Putin, Ali Khamenei and Bashar Assad are likely to feel about all of that. Shouldn’t America have at least one officer of cabinet rank who scares the daylights out of these people?
If Hagel had a sense of the seriousness of the office he is now likely to enter, he would withdraw his name from consideration. But the essential characteristic of mediocre people is that they are the last to recognize mediocrity, either in themselves or in others. That our legislators in their wisdom may soon make this man secretary of defence says as much about them as it does about him. Truly, it’s a Roman senate.
Bret Stephens is a WSJ columnist.
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First Published: Fri, Feb 08 2013. 03 37 PM IST