Where I see in Hagel a man whose ceiling as SecDef is ineffectual bumbler disliked by Pentagon lifers (and he has no floor), these nouveau-America-Firsters, left and right, see a man who will preside bravely over a gradual withdrawal of the United States from whole theaters of geopolitics — and they positively beam at the prospect. But they are missing something else. In their war fatigue, they have refused to reckon with Hagel’s record as a poor organizational leader and domineering, ineffective manager of people; with his amorphous views and tenuous grasp of policy detail; and with his unremarkable intellect.
They ignore all this because they naively and narrowly view Hagel as above all else an “anti-war” figure. There are plenty of reasons for mainstream foreign-policy conservatives to challenge this picture, especially when it’s presented by our friends on the right who style themselves foreign-policy “realists” or “paleocons.” But let’s just focus on one. To set Hagel in a simple opposition to potentially “pro-war” nominees, “interventionists,” or, worst of all, “neocons” gives both the former and the latter too much credit. Leon Panetta wasn’t a “neocon.” Bob Gates wasn’t a “neocon.” And I’m not even sure Don Rumsfeld was one, either — though that’s a doctoral dissertation I’ll never write. But you don’t have to be a neocon to know that the Venn diagram of U.S. and Israeli national interests overlaps, a lot. And you don’t have be a war-of-choice enthusiast to realize that it isn’t ideal when the man charged with planning for the unthinkable calls war with Iran unthinkable. And you don’t have to be a mandarin of the military-industrial complex to know that, “bloated” defense budgets aside, the point of maintaining the greatest destructive instrument in the history of man is to lessen the chance that we’ll ever have to use it.