Hagel and the Return of the End of Realism

November 28, 2014
June 30, 2016

For a President who has shown a remarkable unwillingness to fire officials whose incapacity has inflicted serious damage on his Administration, Barack Obama has struggled mightily with his National Security team. Not only has he run through three confirmed Secretaries of Defense, but he has also gone through that many CIA Directors, a rate that while not shocking in practice(Clinton had the same number), is in marked contrast to the time it took for Kathleen Sebelius to depart after mishandling the Obamacare roll-out, or Eric Holder to announce(though not execute) his departure.

It is a mistake therefore to view the departure of Chuck Hagel, or sacking to adopt the media consensus, as a response either to the results of the midterm elections, or to his inability to "respond" to the "threat" of ISIS. Hagel's fall is far more significant and representative of far more serious realignment in US Foriegn Policy than that. Rather, Hagel's departure is the symbolic end of the alliance between Foriegn Policy Realists and Democrats that first manifested with former Bush 41 National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft's Wall Street Journal op-ed in the fall of 2002 opposing a US invasion of Iraq, and which held with increasing difficulty for the following decade. Its collapse, leaves both parties committed to bankrupt ideologies, neoliberalism for the Democrats, neoconservatism in the case of Republicans, at the very moment when America most needs to rethink its place in the world. Hagel's firing therefore demonstrates most of all that Barack Obama has neither the desire, nor the capacity to do any of that rethinking.

Two Decades of Realist Exile and Counting

Realists have not done well in the US Foriegn Policy community in recent decades. While dominant in the Administration of the first President Bush, they failed to keep up with the rapidity of events that followed the end of the Cold War. Most importantly, they got the greatest single issue of the early 1990s, the Wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia badly wrong in a manner that discredited them not just politically but morally as well. Overestimating the difficulties involved in intervention, and underestimating those preventing joint action with Europe and Russia, they drove Bill Clinton into three years of futile negotiations with Paris, Moscow, and London over the border of safe zones and the economics of partition plans. Forget for a moment that the eventual solution to conflict, arming the Croatian army and then providing it with air support to defeat Serbian forces and bring them to the negotiating table, was the height of realism; realists, and those advocating limits to American power looked foolish when the policy of Richard Holbrooke, Madeleine Albright, and John McCain accomplished in three weeks what they had failed to do in three years.  They had failed in the manner most important to the politicians who ultimately determine who will make US foreign policy; they had failed to deliver results.

This meant that for the rest of the 1990s, interventionists were in the ascendant. Not only did Holbrooke and Albright pursue a shoot first and ask questions later approach in Kosovo, but the realists were ignored even when they might have had a point. Their warnings of the danger of taking advantage of a crippled Moscow to push NATO and the EU to Russia's borders were ignored, and they pushed America into confrontation with both China and Russia at once.

It is hardly a surprise that the realists backed George W. Bush in 2000. This however created the odd result that Bush enjoyed the backing, and therefore had to somehow find the right balance of staffing, of both realists who thought Clinton had been too aggressive, and neoconservatives who thought he had not been aggressive enough. With the benefit of hindsight, Bush actually managed this balance better than he has received credit for, and definitely with more skill and agility than Obama has shown. While Colin Powell's appointment as Secretary of State never quite worked, that had as much to do with his insistence on seeing his role as that of Assistant President for Foriegn Policy, a misunderstanding  that left him locked in a bitter conflict with Vice President Richard Cheney he had no chance of winning. His ineffectiveness would unbalance the Administration, especially after September 11th. Nonetheless, Condi Rice managed to keep the US on close and friendly terms with both Russia and China, far friendlier ones than Obama's arguably less assertive administration was to manage.

Rice's mastery of Russian, and personal friendship with Putin could not prevent the American invasion of Iraq, which marked a breaking point for realists, who most of all were dedicated to a foreign policy of cost benefit analysis that was foreign to the idea of invading nations to expand democracy, or even seeing direct military intervention as the financially cheapest way of punishing governments.

Normally they would not have found a ready home with the Democrats, still nominally committed to the liberal intervention of Holbrooke and Albright, both of whom advised John Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 Presidential nominee who voted in favor of invading Iraq in 2003. Sentiment within the Democratic party however, was not on the side of the interventionists. Furious over the invasion, grassroots Democrats were furious that the US had invaded Iraq at all, and felt vindicated when thing went wrong. The temporally propelled Vermont Governor Howard Dean to the top of the Democratic field in 2004, and after Kerry's defeat, their position was unassailable.

In the post-2004 world there was therefore a strange convergence of viewpoints between realists of the Kissinger school who believed in an amoral system of foreign policy that valued pragmatism and efficiency above all else, and the guilt-based, academic, liberal isolationism that had denounced past practitioners of realism, most prominently Kissinger himself, as War Criminals. They might oppose Iraq for different reasons, the former because it was stupid, the latter because it was wrong, but they both opposed it, and valued the cooperation.

It was within this context that Chuck Hagel made his break with the Republican consensus. Otherwise a solid conservative, Hagel had expressed doubts about the Iraq war, and with support for that war and then the surge of 2007 becoming a requirement for membership in the Republican party he inched closer to Democrats, for whom he became a hero for his opposition. An inverse version of interventionist Democrat Joe Lieberman. The real surprise was therefore not that Hagel got a senior position under Obama, but that he had to wait so long.

A World of Fantasies and Delusions

That wait, more than anything else, is what adds mystery to Hagel's appointment. Because by the time that Hagel was nominated, Obama's efforts to integrate the three major foreign policy streams that had backed him in 2008, had long since fallen apart. Obama had to reconcile an unholy combination of ex-GOP realists such as Hagel, liberal nationalists such as Holbrooke, and academic humanitarians such as Samantha Power and Susan Rice. Obama divided his appointments, but as soon became clear, official positions meant next to nothing in the Obama Administration; real policy was made by the President and those who had personal access to him, almost invariably academics like Rice and Power, rather than Washington veterans. Holbrooke, who attempted to to bring the same sort of focus and order to American policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan he had brought to that in Bosnia, found himself abandoned by the President when he tried to force out Afghan leader Hamid Karzai after the latter stole the 2009 Presidential elections, and was on the point of resignation when he suddenly died. Dennis Ross, the Middle East negotiator for both Bush 41 and Clinton found himself sidelined within a matter of months, and quit. Robert Gates, the holdover as Secretary of Defense, and Bush 41's CIA Director also quit, outlying a series of frustrations regarding policy in his memoirs. With Hillary's departure in late 2012, Rice and Power appeared unchallenged, with the former only narrowly missing out on receiving the Secretary of State's office due to congressional opposition.

Why have Rice and Power been able to dominate policy to a degree that even Cheney failed to accomplish under Bush 43? Most likely because the President ultimately shares their view. They view foreign policy in a moral sense. Human rights are universal, and international law exists to protect individuals from states rather than to regularize relations between them. America's problems have been due to its imperialist behavior around the world and support for nasty regimes from Latin America to the Middle East. America's issues with Latin America are owed to its crime of overthrowing Chilean leader Salvador Allende in 1973; its trouble with Iran to the overthrow of Mohamad Mossedeq in 1953. Ignore for a moment that these charges are nonsense; actual historical facts are irrelevant to modern IR academics, and few bother learning much about the events they cite, hence their reliance on conventional wisdom such as Mossedeq being "democratically elected" or the idea that Iranians, as opposed to Americans who took a single seminar, actually care about who he was.

Obama came in with the conviction that America's problems in the world were do to Bush's ideological foreign policy. He had alienated Russia, provoked China, and backed nasty regimes in the Middle East while making America hated in the Islamic world. Obama would reverse this; he would apologize for American policy towards the Islamic world, go for a reset with Russia, support "democratic" Islamist movements such as Turkey's AKP and the Muslim Brotherhood, and allow the military to determine anti-terrorism policy. Rather than treating Iran as part of the axis of evil, he would seek engagement.

Central to all of these policies was a conviction that America's problems were self-inflicted. Rather than the inevitable result of clashes of interests and ideology, they were the product of the Bush Administration's supposed baiting of opponents. It may be hard to believe today, but when I was starting in University, it was a conviction that Iran had made overtures to America after the invasion of Afghanistan, culminating in a supposed "grand offer" by the Faqih, Ayatollah Khamenei himself, in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, all of which were spurned. We know that this was nonsense, as no less an authority than current President Rouhani has confirmed that it was Bush who kept presenting offer at offer for normalization to Tehran, including direct talks at the Presidential level, only to have them rejected by Khamenei. But the weakness of the Obama Administration in foreign affairs has been its lack of knowledge of the real world and lack of interest in learning; the most dangerous fools are those who think they know things when they do not, and Obama's team, fortified with some of the most prominent International Relations academics in the country did not bother to consult with the outgoing Administration or with Rice's State Department to find out what the actual nature of US policy towards Iran for the last eight years had been, so confirmed were they in the conventional wisdom.

Iran policy was symbolic of a wider problem. Obama's policy was based on conventional wisdom, informed conventional wisdom, but a conventional wisdom based on myths nonetheless. The myth of Tora Bora, the myth of imperialism as a cause of Islamic fundamentalism, the myth that neoconservative Cold Warriors had pushed Russia into confrontation, and the myth that US support for corporate interests, not inherent ideological extremism had driven Latin America's revolutionary leftists towards authoritarianism. As these myths assumed US action as the cause, the solution was concluded to be the opposite approach,

Having diagnosed the wrong ailments, its hardly a surprise Obama's cures, or at leas those advocated by his inner circle of Samantha Power and Susan Rice, not only failed, but generally made problems worse. In reality Bush had not ruined relations with Russia; by contrast, Putin's relationship with Bush and Rice remained good until the end, demonstrated by the difference between Putin's behavior in Georgia in 2008 and the Ukraine today. Iran had never really tried to reach out under Bush, except insofar as they were sure the US would reject the overtures and put itself in the wrong. His efforts provoked a greater degree of aggression from Iran, while his advocacy of universal values international "rules" merely provoked and annoyed Putin. His policy of backing "liberal" Islamists merely alienated US allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and now Egypt, while tying his policy to an erratic Erdogan.

Yet regardless of their success Obama has persevered in them, which probably is the greatest single indication that his embrace is one of conviction rather than opportunism. It was also a clear indication that rather than a break from the assumed crime of the Bush Administration - that regardless of the balance in senior positions, Bush's natural leanings towards neoconservatives around Dick Cheney allowed them to gain a total ascendancy over policy making - Obama's leanings were equally clear, and his staffing equally a fig leaf, even if the prominence of Hillary Clinton hid the extent of this for a time.

And this was clear by January of 2013 when Hagel was asked to come on board. Robert Gates could have been forgiven for believing in 2009 that he might still wield some degree of influence as Secretary of Defense; no one should have been that delusional by January of 2013. Hence why Obama, foiled in appointing Rice, sought the most nominal sort of balance in the appointment of senior figures who by this point in time were too careerists to be effective advocates for any positions. Hence the appointment of John Kerry to State, where he has acted as something of a roving Press Secretary, and Hagel, unemployed, politically dead and presumably desperate to the Pentagon.

If there was any doubt at the time as to where power would lie, it should have been dispelled by Samantha Power's appointment to the UN, and Rice's failed move to SOS. Hagel, who ultimately was a realist who had abandoned the GOP due to his skepticism of human nature and of America's ability to make dangerous parts of the world better places should have known how out of touch he was. Most likely he did not care.

It is unsurprising that Hagel should have differed with the Administration over ISIS. It is more surprising, and perhaps a mark in favor of Hagel that his fall occurred over those differences. The only reason Hagel was even considered for the post, much less appointed was his opposition to the Iraq war, and if not Obama, then the members of the Powers/Rice school were advocating that the US not only should fight ISIS but had some sort of "obligation" to do so. I was and am not privy to the inner debates within the Administration, but I will say that Hagel strikes me as someone who would have shared the view I have expressed that the Syrian Civil War is the best thing that has ever happened for Israel and the West in that it is creating a three-way cold war in the region between Iran, the Saudis/Egyptians, and the Turks, none of whom are our friends. To accept such a view, and the corollary that it is better to have Jihadists die in Syria or Iraq than in the West, and even better if they die at the hands of one another, one has to reject universal moral conceptions of the value of human life in favor of pragmatism. Hagel could likely manage that; Rice, Power, and Obama, presumably could not. For them the fact that people were suffering and dying was enough.

On one level this seems to have been the split, and it is a bit rich for Obama to claim Hagel was not giving him options other than troops or to do nothing. Those are the only two real options. Anything else is a incremental step on the road to escalation, good only for political cover, and to delude one-self that the conflict can actually be stopped by the United States. Yet the overwhelming evidence from the last six years is that Obama does not want disagreement, but yes men, both in terms of policy, and in terms of policy options. He split the difference on Afghanistan in the fall of 2009 regarding the decision to send more troops, and did so on Iraq as well. Now he is trying to do it on Iraq and wants someone to tell him that airstrikes and a few special forces will be sufficient.

In a wider sense however, Hagel's departure removes the last check on the influence of Obama's inner circle. John Kerry is a political and policy non-entity, as will be Hagel's replacement. Even more importantly however, the realists no longer have a home in the Obama Administration. Obama has chosen, and at the very time figures like Rand Paul are making isolationism within the GOP an attractive ally for realism, Obama has pushed them away.

Hagel's fall makes US escalation in Iraq more likely, simply because Obama seems determined to do something, but not enough to make a difference, and whoever replaces Hagel is far more likely to tell him he can get away with it. That is sad. US Foriegn Policy is once more in the hands of ideologues, only this time lazy ones, and any sort of rethink will have to wait until there is another President in place.


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