Wanted: A Coherent Republican National Security Viewpoint

Aside from its implications for the Obama administration or the rules of the Senate, the treatment of the Hagel nomination by Senate Republicans–particularly those on the Armed Services Committee–is raising some alarms about what kind of national security viewpoint the GOP stands for to begin with. Slate‘s Fred Kaplan vented on this subject last night:

It’s been clear, at least since the 2012 election, that the Republican Party has abrogated its role—really, abandoned any interest—in shaping or seriously discussing American foreign policy. But only recently has this indifference shifted into toxic territory, and on Tuesday the fumes formed a poisonous cloud, the likes of which hadn’t been witnessed in decades.

The occasion was the Senate Armed Services Committee’s vote on Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense. In the end, Hagel pulled through, but only on a party-line vote (all Democrats in favor, all Republicans opposed) and after a debate that raised doubts less about Hagel than about the modern GOP’s inclination—and the Senate’s ability—to oversee anything as consequential as national security.

Hagel’s Jan. 31 confirmation hearings had been appalling enough—not just for his own lackluster performance, but more for his inquisitors’ bizarrely narrow focus. They asked almost nothing about the issues that will face the next defense secretary: the budget, the roles and missions of the Army, the balance of drones vs. manned aircraft, the size of the Navy, the future of Afghanistan, or the “pivot” from Europe to Asia. Instead, they hectored the nominee about the adequacy of his fealty toward Israel, his animosity toward Iran, and whether he was right or wrong about the 2007 troop-surge in Iraq.

There was all that in the follow-up session on Feb. 12, plus a whiff of paranoia and sedition that’s rarely been cracked open since the days of Joseph McCarthy.

Kaplan went on to discuss the witch-hunt for Hagel’s imagined ties to terrorists, and the general ignorance about, and indifference towards, actual national security challenges among SASC GOPers.

His take is interesting because he isn’t just deploring the loss of the Committee’s old habit of bipartisanship, which had its good (a relatively low level of partisan theater) and bad (a tendency to close ranks in support of Pentagon priorities) points. Nor is Kaplan arguing that the GOP’s national security posture is wrong. He’s suggesting they really don’t have one, beyond an assortment of prejudices, score-settling grudges, and belligerent rhetorical tics.

As should have been more widely noted, a real sign of the GOP zeitgeist is that even Sen. Rand Paul couldn’t seem to transcend constant self-contradiction when he got around to a Big National Security speech last week. What will represent the great totems of GOP international policy thinking when Hagel’s either in the Cabinet or not, and when even Republicans tire of Benghazi! Will it all be about Israel and Iran? We don’t know for sure, but it would be nice to see fresh signs of intelligent life in this corner of the creation.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.