Inevitable Embarrassment

Experience is a good thing – they say age brings wisdom, which it does, because all the mistakes over all the years still sting. Some things are just embarrassing, even if whatever it was one did was what was done at the time. Popular culture has its imperatives, so the tie-dye love-bead sixties gave way to the sleek seventies – and guys were suddenly wearing white Nehru jackets. That might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but what followed, pastel polyester leisure suits with the giant bell-bottom pants, was just cruel – and Farah Fawcett was the only woman who ever looked good with big hair, feathered out to forever. Actually she would have looked just as good bald – all the other women with big hair back then just looked perpetually startled. It was an odd time – even Burt Reynolds, with his spiffy little moustache, was considered cool. Now that’s a camp-retro thing. Those of us who never shaved ours off are just being ironic, like in those Austin Powers movies where Mike Meyers travels back to that absurd age and mocks it for all it’s worth – which isn’t much. Disco died and we all moved on. What were we thinking?

The point is that it’s always better to know better now, no matter what you thought you knew then. Multiple embarrassments can be assimilated into something that passes for wisdom. Conversely, persistently refusing to accept you had been a real jerk, caught up in the foolishness of the moment, can render you a dim bulb, always unable to see what’s what. Yeah, you can say you stand on unwavering principle, and everyone has their pride – but pride is often the same thing as stupidity. Mitt Romney, when he was running for president, would puff out his chest and proudly tell us, again and again, that he would never apologize for America. He even wrote a book no one ever read, No Apologies, all about how there never was or ever can be anything that America should be embarrassed about, ever, as the whole concept is impossible. America, because it is America, can make no mistakes – that’s the beauty of our system or something. Now on cool evenings he walks around his giant La Jolla estate, down the coast out here, in his Members Only jacket. Sometimes he takes the grandkids to Disneyland over in Anaheim. It’s all very retro.

The foolishness of the moment takes many forms of course. In 1997, William Kristol and Robert Kagan started up that Project for the New American Century – basically a Washington think tank set up to work out what America should be doing in the world now that the Cold War was over. That sucked in all the big-gun neoconservatives, and Dick Cheney, and the answer to what we should now be doing now was that we should remake the world, by military force, into what we wanted it to be – a world of representative democracies with totally unregulated free-market economies based on the accumulation of vast wealth by the few right people, and where no one picked on Israel too. We were the only superpower that had been left standing. We might as well do something useful with all that firepower. No one else, really, had any power at all now.

This became the new big thing – these guys flooded the academic journals and the media with this thinking, with William Kristol’s Weekly Standard leading the way. Soon they found a pliant fellow they could run for president, who, even if he didn’t quite get what they were getting at, would say and do the right things. When George Bush asked Dick Cheney to head a committee to find him a likely vice president, Cheney slyly said that he himself was just the man. These folks then had the right man to whisper in Bush’s ear, to bring about what needed to be brought about – and we were soon off to transform the Middle East, and then the world, starting with Iraq, as no one really cared about Afghanistan. And no, these folks weren’t embarrassed that it turned out that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, or that all the stuff they had said about Afghanistan and getting that Osama fellow was just bullshit. That was beside the point. There was a master plan, and it was pretty damned cool.

That master plan failed. We’ve left Iraq and we’re leaving Afghanistan and Middle East wasn’t transformed. The Arab Spring wasn’t our doing, even if that actually is transforming things there. It’s also producing trouble, like the Muslim Brotherhood winning control of Egypt in an open democratic election of all things. That’s not what we had in mind. None of this is what we had in mind. The whole Project for the New American Century was an embarrassment. We should learn from it. That’s what embarrassments are for.

Don’t tell that to the neoconservatives. They’re impervious to embarrassment. In fact, that’s why they hate that Obama nominated Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense. Hagel was with them once, voting for and enthusiastic about the war in Iraq, until he saw what was happening and bailed on them. Obama just nominated someone who will show the nation, and the world, that these guys might just as well be standing around in pastel polyester leisure suits and they don’t like it much.

Peter Beinart puts it a different way:

Had a Martian descended to earth in January 2003, spent a few days listening to Washington Republicans talk foreign policy, and then returned in January 2013, she [yes, an amusing choice] would likely conclude that the Iraq War had been a fabulous success. She would conclude that because, as far as I can tell, not a single Republican-aligned Beltway foreign-policy politician or pundit enjoys less prominence than he did a decade ago because he supported the Iraq War, and not a single one enjoys more prominence because he opposed it. From Bill Kristol to Charles Krauthammer to John McCain to John Bolton to Dan Senor, the same people who dominated Republican foreign-policy discourse a decade ago still dominate it today, and they espouse exactly the same view of the world. As for those conservatives who opposed Iraq – people at places like the Cato Institute and The National Interest who believe that there are clear limits to American military power – our Fox News–watching, Wall Street Journal–reading Martian would have been largely unaware of their existence in 2003 and would remain largely unaware today. Our Martian friend might know somewhat more about Ron Paul than she would have a decade ago. But that familiarity would consist largely of the knowledge that respectable Republicans consider Paul a nut.

Beinart finds this astonishing:

When Democrats took America into Vietnam, protesters rioted in the streets at the party’s 1968 convention. Academics like McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow became such pariahs after serving in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that they could not return to their old universities. Prominent pro-war columnists like Joseph Alsop became laughingstocks. Former Vietnam hawks like Zbigniew Brzezinski had to intellectually reinvent themselves to secure government jobs when the Democrats returned to power under Jimmy Carter.

Not so now:

The Iraq-era GOP, by contrast, has constructed an intellectual cocoon so hermetically sealed that it has remained uncontaminated by the greatest foreign-policy disaster of the past thirty years. That’s partly the result of the “surge,” which allowed the Republican foreign-policy establishment to claim, in my view incorrectly, some measure of vindication. It’s partly because Iraq required no draft, and thus ordinary Americans never mobilized as dramatically to oppose it, which allowed foreign-policy elites to remain more insulated from shifts in the public mood. It’s partly because the institutions where conservative foreign-policy-types work – places like The Weekly Standard, Fox News, and the American Enterprise Institute – have no natural mechanism for reconsidering their view of the world.

When Vietnam went south, the intellectual climate at Harvard (where Bundy served as a dean) and The New York Times (which had initially backed the war) changed because Harvard and The New York Times had missions that transcended any particular perspective on American foreign policy. By contrast, hawkish nationalism is so intrinsic to the identity of places like Fox, the Standard, and AEI that abandoning it would threaten their reason for existence.

That’s the real problem with Hagel:

That hawkish line consists of hostility to any diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear standoff that involves meaningful American compromise and cautious optimism about the impact of an American military strike. More generally, it means supporting as large a defense budget as possible, irrespective of its impact on America’s fiscal health. This is the perspective that Republican foreign-policy pundits call “mainstream” and from which they say Hagel diverges. And they are right. Taking a hawkish line on Iran and military spending is as mainstream in today’s GOP as was taking a hawkish line on Iraq and Afghanistan between 2001 and 2003, because Republican Washington has created an ecosystem in which the wisdom of that prior hawkishness is irrelevant to contemporary debates.

Popular culture has its imperatives, as so does the political culture:

What makes Hagel so important, and so threatening to the Republican foreign-policy elite, is that he is one of the few prominent Republican-aligned politicians and commentators (George Will and Francis Fukuyama are others, but such voices are rare) who was intellectually changed by Iraq. And Hagel was changed, in large measure, because he bore within him intellectual (and physical) scar tissue from Vietnam. As my former colleague John Judis captured brilliantly in a 2007 New Republic profile, the Iraq War sparked something visceral in Hagel, as the former Vietnam rifleman realized that, once again, detached and self-interested elites were sending working-class kids like himself to die in a war they couldn’t honestly defend. It is certainly true that some politicians who served in Vietnam – for instance, John McCain – did not react to Iraq that way. But it is also true that the fact that so few American politicians and pundits lived the kind of wartime hell Hagel endured made it easier for them to pass through the Iraq years unscathed. …

At the heart of the opposition to Hagel is the fear that he will do what Republicans have thus far largely prevented: bring America’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan into the Iran debate.

In short, the man is dangerous. They’ll be seen as jerks:

What the Republican foreign-policy establishment fears is that with Hagel as secretary of defense, it will be impossible for Obama to minimize the dangers of war with Iran, as George W. Bush minimized the dangers of war with Iraq. Hagel would be to the Obama administration what Dwight Eisenhower was in the 1950s, what Colin Powell was in the 1990s, and what, to some degree, ex-Mossad head Meir Dagan was in the Netanyahu government, the military man who bluntly reminds his colleagues that war, once unleashed, cannot be easily controlled. “Once you start” a war with Iran, Hagel told the Atlantic Council in 2010, “you’d better be prepared to find 100,000 troops, because it may take that.” You can’t say “it’ll be a limited warfare. I don’t think any nation can ever go into it that way.” For Hagel’s ex-friends in the Republican foreign-policy class, such a statement is kryptonite, because they know that given the American public’s weariness of war, a president who outlined the risks that way would have trouble gaining popular support. It’s also likely that Hagel’s position would be reinforced by the leaders of the uniformed military, some of whom have already expressed skepticism about bombing Iran.

This could then be the end of an era:

Barack Obama has been commander in chief for nearly four years, but in important ways, the Obama era in American foreign policy has not yet begun. It will begin when Democrats express their foreign-policy views as fearlessly as do their Republican counterparts and when those Republican counterparts can no longer impose their historical amnesia about the catastrophes of the last ten years on public debate. It will begin when the American right can no longer marginalize public officials with whom it disagrees about Iran by hurling charges of anti-Semitism with a promiscuity that would make Al Sharpton blush. It will begin when Obama surrounds himself with advisers more interested in shifting the foreign-policy “mainstream” than parroting it. It will begin when Obama declares independence from the Bush-era assumptions that have so far constrained his foreign policy. And with luck, we will one day look back upon Chuck Hagel’s nomination as the day it did.

Andrew Sullivan concurs with this:

Unlike so many of the lemmings and partisans of Washington DC, Hagel actually called out the catastrophe of the Iraq War as it happened. The neocons cannot forgive him for exposing what they wrought on the nation and the world. For good measure, he has a Purple Heart and has served in combat. Not easy to say about most of the Iraq War armchair warriors and war criminals.

Which is to say, as Chuck Todd said this morning, this nomination is about accountability for the Iraq War. All those ducking responsibility for the calamity – Abrams, Kristol, Stephens – are determined that those of us honest enough to resist, having supported in the first place, be erased from history. Or smeared as anti-Semites. Or given that epithet which impresses them but baffles me: “outside the mainstream”. Rephrase that as – after initial support – being “outside the Iraq War mainstream” in DC – and you have a major reason to back him.

William Kristol, a man who refuses to be embarrassed, fires back:

If you read the oeuvre of Hagel’s defenders, you’ll see that Hagel must be appointed in order to spite many of his critics, whom they deeply dislike. Hagel’s defenders are welcome to their dislikes. But dislike of hawks, neocons, or friends of Israel isn’t really a good reason to select Chuck Hagel. And there’s something comical about many of the defenses of Hagel. His defenders rise up in high dudgeon to condemn Hagel’s critics as smear merchants for criticizing Hagel as anti-Israel and soft on Iran – and then, if they’re among the honest Hagel defenders, they praise Hagel for being anti-Israel and soft on Iran.

Sullivan is having none of that:

The language! We’re not talking about dislike of people. We’re talking about dislike of the mindset that got us into the Iraq War. We’re talking about dislike of those who refuse to take moral responsibility for anything and actually believe, with the blood of tens of thousands on their hands, they have some right to question a veteran with two Purple Hearts. They need a reality check: Obama won the election, not Romney. It says a huge amount about the Greater Israel lobby that they assume that national elections in no way should impede their usual control of Middle East policy in Washington – but just showing them that the battle to retrieve our democracy from lobby groups is worth something.

And Hagel is not anti-Israel. Kristol is anti-Israel, having fanatically supported this Israeli government’s suicidal behavior, and the toxic, illegal social engineering on the West Bank that will render Israel either a non-democracy or a non-Jewish state.

Sullivan is itching for a fight here:

At the hearings, we can see McCain’s vision versus Hagel’s, and see the difference between a man who refuses to adjust his global mindset after Iraq and a man who has had the strength and character to do so. So many Americans are likely to agree with Hagel over military restraint, diplomatic patience, and cutting defense bloat. The reason the Greater Israel lobby is in such a froth is that the weakness of their arguments could be publicly exposed – by a Republican. And there isn’t enough AIPAC money and intimidation to stop that happening.

The jig is up, so to speak.

Sullivan also digs up this Chuck Hagel quote from 2002:

If disarmament in Iraq requires the use of force, we need to consider carefully the implications and consequences of our actions. The future of Iraq after Saddam Hussein is also an open question. Some of my colleagues and some American analysts now speak authoritatively of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iraq, and how Iraq can be a test case for democracy in the Arab world. How many of us really know and understand much about Iraq, the country, the history, the people, the role in the Arab world? I approach the issue of post-Saddam Iraq and the future of democracy and stability in the Middle East with more caution, realism and a bit more humility… Imposing democracy through force in Iraq is a roll of the dice. A democratic effort cannot be maintained without building durable Iraqi political institutions and developing a regional and international commitment to Iraq’s reconstruction. No small task.

Sullivan then points out how William Kristol attacked Hagel at the time:

Iraq’s uncertain future, as opposed to its totalitarian present, has become the principle [sic] concern of many realists. “What comes after a military invasion?” Senator Chuck Hagel would like to know. “Who rules Iraq? Does the United States really want to be in Baghdad, trying to police Baghdad for twenty or thirty years?” … Predictions of ethnic turmoil in Iraq are even more questionable than they were in the case of Afghanistan. Unlike the Taliban, Saddam has little support among any ethnic group, Sunnis included, and the Iraqi opposition is itself a multi-ethnic force…

The executive director of the Iraq Foundation, Rend Rahim Francke, says, “We will not have a civil war in Iraq. This is contrary to Iraqi history, and Iraq has not had a history of communal conflict as there has been in the Balkans or in Afghanistan…”

Sullivan adds this:

Which one would you trust to have input on foreign policy in the coming years? A pro-Greater Israel fanatic who has been proven definitively wrong about almost everything in the past decade? Or one of a handful of senators who stood up against the tide for war and his own party and asked all the questions I didn’t?

Kevin Drum, on the other hand, sees other reasons the Republicans are upset:

I won’t pretend to have a firmly considered opinion about Hagel. On general principle, I don’t like the idea of nominating a Republican to run the Pentagon yet again. Doing it once is one thing. Doing it a second time sends a message that there just aren’t enough Democrats around who are qualified to run the war-making branch of government.

Still, there’s no getting around the smartness of the strategy. When it comes to defense policy, Obama’s tenure has mostly been marked by (a) withdrawing troops from warzones, (b) cutting the Pentagon budget, and (c) repealing DADT. Getting a Republican on board as the public face of those policies gives them a bipartisan cast that would be nearly impossible to get otherwise. This is one reason that I think Republicans are so unnerved by Hagel. Despite what they say, their real problem is that they don’t like the idea that one of their own will be telling the country that it’s OK to withdraw from Afghanistan and it’s okay to shave the defense budget a bit.

There’s that too, but it all blends together. Multiple embarrassments can be assimilated into something that passes for wisdom. Conversely, persistently refusing to accept you had been a real jerk, caught up in the foolishness of the moment, can render you a dim bulb, always unable to see what’s what. Take your choice – but you really don’t want to be the guy hanging around in a pastel polyester leisure suit these days. Disco is dead, the victim of its own silliness. So is neoconservatism.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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