Up From Foreign Policy Timidity

As progressives (generally) get themselves reluctantly roused up to fight for Chuck Hagel’s confirmation as Defense Secretary, Peter Beinert has penned the most passionate argument for why the Nebraskan could be a genuine game-changer. To make a very long column short, Beinart thinks Hagel could break the conspiracy of silence among Republican foreign policy elites about the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and their relevance to a possible conflict with Iran, and could shake up Democratic foreign policy elites allergic to controversy.

Beinert’s argument with respect to Republicans is interesting but not totally convincing: the bulk of Republicans have already read Hagel out of the party, so it’s not at all clear either the White House or the media can perpetually depict him as representing a legitimate Republican POV that is being suppressed. The GOP’s bigger problem is with Rand Paul, who has foreign policy views far more heterodox than Hagel’s, and is widely regarded as representing a conservative constituency that cannot be expelled or entirely ignored.

But there’s definitely something to Beinart’s argument about Hagel’s impact on Democrats, who still fear looking weak or naive on national security issues. Here’s Beinart’s coda:

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 10 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.

That may be too much to hope for, but it’s worth considering as the confirmation fight intensifies.

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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.