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Hagel knew war too well to be a 'cowboy' secretary of defence

Hagel's resignation earlier this week, was brought about largely by a US Congress with little appetite for geo-political nuance and complexity

When President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon in 2012, the decorated Vietnam War veteran became the first enlisted man to serve as the Secretary of Defence.

Unlike his predecessors, Robert Gates, Leon Panetta, and Donald Rumsfeld, Hagel, as an infantry squad leader, has seen firsthand the carnage of combat. And, like all who are confronted with the reality of war, he hated it.

"Every Vietnam veteran understands that," Hagel said during a 2012 interview. "Any veteran who has ever served in a war understands that, and I think we should never forget the consequences of war."

To understand Hagel is to understand why he opposed the 2007 surge. He called the Iraq war, “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam”.  It was his opposition to the Iraq surge that led some Senate Republicans, particularly John McCain (R-AZ), to vehemently oppose his nomination.

 Despite the Republican and the US media’s insistence the surge was an “unqualified success,” Hagel knew the truth - that the surge amounted to little more than the offer of cash and weapons to Sunni militias who in return wouldn’t shoot at US troops while the United States sought an “honorable withdrawal” from Iraq.

Hagel’s instinct to avoid war where avoidance is necessary or possibly why Obama appointed him to the military’s top civilian job. Essentially his brief was to oversee the winding down of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to make much-needed cuts to an over-bloated military budget. In other words, he was to manage the transition from endless war to temporary peace.

While defence contractors saw Hagel as a threat to their profits, the neo-conservatives saw him as obstacle to their goal of remaking the Middle East in America-Israel’s image. It was Hagel’s remarks regarding the considerable influence of the pro-Israel lobby in Washington DC that became the rallying cry to block his nomination.

“The political reality is that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” Hagel said in an interview with Aaron David Miller, an advisor on Arab-Israeli negotiations. Hagel later apologised for his poor choice of vernacular, saying he should’ve said “pro-Israel lobby” instead of “Jewish lobby”.

Despite his apology and what was largely a statement of fact, the campaign to discredit Hagel by pro-Israeli, neo-conservative commentators was extreme.

William Kristol, editor of the right-wing Weekly Standard, accused him of harboring an "unpleasant distaste for Israel and Jews". Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens described Hagel’s comments as odorous and prejudiced, while the American Jewish Committee sent a letter to each member of the US Senate - urging them to vote against Hagel's appointment as Secretary of Defence.

For the military industrial complex, military hawks, neo-conservatives, and the Israel lobby, the reflexively anti-war Hagel represented an extension of Obama - who they believe to be too dovish, squeamish, and not supportive enough of Israel. But despite their opposition, Hagel was confirmed in February 2013.

Barely a year after his confirmation, however, US public sentiment towards military involvement in the Middle East began to change. A war-weary American public was becoming inundated with images of the Syrian conflict, and the brutality of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. This created a rapid and stunning shift in US public opinion.

In April 2014, an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that less than 20 percent of Americans believe the US should become “more active” in world affairs, compared with 47 percent who said the nation should be “less active”. Five months later, the same question posed to respondents produced the numbers 27 percent and 40 percent respectively.

The ISIS executions of James Foley and Steven Sotloff suddenly made Americans feel less safe. In 2013, “28 percent of Americans said they felt less safe than they did before September 11 terrorist attacks.” By mid-2014, that number had leaped to 47 percent. A Pew Research survey shows that 77 percent of Republicans do not believe Obama is tough enough on foreign policy issues. What is even more telling is that one year ago, only 18 percent of Republicans thought the US did too little to help solve the world’s problems.

According to the poll “today, 46 percent of Republicans think the US does too little to solve global problems,” which is an extraordinary shift in sentiment in a short period of time.

"Americans have been shocked into action," cried Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) on the eve of the 2014-midterm elections. With Americans becoming increasingly hawkish for the first time since the Surge in 2007, Republicans made US intervention in the Middle East a campaign platform. The American voters made it clear they wanted more airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, increasingly aggressive support of Israel, and a beefing up of military spending.

Effectively the American voters’ wish list reads as a complete contradiction of what Hagel had been sent to the Pentagon to do.

“He [Obama] has faced increasing calls from lawmakers in both parties to expand the US military role, not only in Iraq but also in Syria, where the administration has been reluctant to intervene directly in that country’s civil war,” Dan Balz and Peyton M. Craighill – the Washington Post’s chief correspondent and polling manager - noted in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

Coupled with a growing US appetite for military intervention in the Middle East, Obama’s foreign policy ratings are flat-lining at an all-time low, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, which found a majority saying that the president is too cautious when it comes to foreign threats and particularly in dealing with ISIS.

Clearly, those political advisors closest to the president believe now is the time to take a clearly more aggressive posture in the Middle East.

Vali Nasr was a foreign policy advisor for the US State Department during the first term of the Obama presidency. He believes criticisms of Obama’s handling of the Middle East stems from the fact the administration has “neither come up with a strategy for capitalising on the opportunity that the Arab Spring presented, nor adequately prepared for potential fallout in the form of regional rivalry, the explosion of sectarian tensions, and deep-rooted economic crises”. In his book The Indispensible Nation, Nasr suggests the Pentagon and the White House need a recalibration of their Middle East policy.

“What are America’s interests in the Middle East?," asks Nasr. “How will we protect them as old regimes fall new ones try to take shape? Can we influence outcomes? How should we prepare for the rise of Islamism, civil wars, state failures, reversals, and recrudescence of dictatorship? We need answers to these questions and a strategy for realizing the best, avoiding the worst, and protecting interests in the process.”

Unfortunately, it appears the incoming Republican controlled congress and the average American voter has little appetite for geo-political nuance and complexity. They demand a return of the hyper-masculine, cowboy strutting America. And the forced resignation of Hagel is their first step to achieving that.

- CJ Werleman is an opinion writer for Salon, Alternet, and the author of Crucifying America, and God Hates You. Hate Him Back. Follow him on twitter: @cjwerleman

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: US Secretary of Defence resigned Monday under fire from Congress (AFP)

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