Chuck Hagel and the Battle for GOP Foreign Policy

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Chuck Hagel and the Battle for GOP Foreign Policy

While Hagel didn’t create the divisions within the GOP, his nomination is likely to harden them.

Soon after the U.S. election in November, I suggested that President Obama should nominate outgoing Republican Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) as his secretary of state. One reason I gave for this was that Lugar, as a moderate Republican, would force GOP Senators to throw their support behind him or else risk creating greater disarray within their party at a time when they could ill afford it.

Not surprisingly, my recommendation for making Lugar secretary of state never gained traction. But President Obama has reportedly elected to nominate another moderate former Republican Senator as his secretary of defense: Chuck Hagel from the state of Nebraska. Obama’s formal nomination today came after weeks of floating Hagel’s name was met with unrelenting outrage from the loose coalition of individuals and organizations that comprise the fictitious group, Americans Against a Sensible Middle East Policy (AASMEP). 

Much of the attention surrounding Hagel’s potential nomination has focused on his policy positions towards the Middle East and military spending, as well as the torturous political terrain he’ll have to navigate to win confirmation. Many speculate this terrain will include overcoming opposition from some Democratic senators like Chuck Schumer (D-NY). My own sense is that many Democratic senators will play their cards close to their chest as the political circus surrounding Hagel’s nomination unfolds, but will ultimately vote with the president if Hagel garners enough support from the GOP to win confirmation.

More importantly, whatever tension Hagel’s nomination creates for within the Democratic Party is almost certain to be overshadowed by the havoc it wreaks upon the Republican Party. The GOP has been struggling to contain a simmering civil war within their ranks ever since their disappointing showing at the polls last fall forced them to acknowledge the increasingly stark divisions between establishment Republicans and Tea Party radicals.

Although this was discussed at length in the weeks following the election, it became even more contentious during the recent “fiscal cliff” negotiations when legislation put forward by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) was strongly rebuffed by his own caucus, which then almost voted down alternative legislation that was crafted largely by their Senate brethren. Following this debacle, Boehner managed to retain his Speakership despite some initial doubts, but evidently felt compelled to promise to not meet with President Obama any longer as a show of gratitude to House Republicans for their begrudging support.

President Obama’s selection of Hagel was likely guided primarily by the former senator’s policy expertise and their personal relationship. That being said, the politics of choosing Hagel could not have been lost on Obama or his political strategists. With the GOP already facing a tenuous couple of months with debates over the debt ceiling and government spending on the agenda, the White House has now added Hagel’s confirmation into this combustible mix.

In some ways, this will merely strengthen existing divisions within the GOP. Hagel is a DC insider who spent twelve years in the Senate and has strong ties with many establishment Republican senators and veteran Capitol Hill staffers. Many of these individuals—though certainly not all of them—will find it difficult to oppose his confirmation, especially if he makes personal appeals. On the other hand, since the 2010 election (Hagel left the Senate in 2009) there have been at least 18 new GOP Senators to take office that still hold it, although some were previously House members. While not all of the new GOP senators are Tea Partiers or anti-establishment Republicans, many are, and these members will have few personal loyalists to Hagel and are likely to see him as an Obama stooge; a RINO (Republican in Name Only) in every sense of the word.

That being said, the true political genius of Hagel’s nomination for Obama and the Democrats is that it will exacerbate the already messy divisions inflicting the Republican Party. For example, members of the libertarian camp of the Tea Party such as Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) may actually support Hagel preciously because of his views on defense spending and Middle East policy. Thus, while remaining united with Tea Party members on the debt ceiling and spending cuts, Paul and others may find solidarity with certain establishment Republicans over Hagel’s nomination. In the same vein, some establishment Republicans like Senator John McCain (R-AZ) who are traditionally moderate and inclined to compromise on domestic issues, will almost certainly unite with anti-establishment Republicans that oppose Hagel’s confirmation.    

But nowhere will Hagel’s nomination be more divisive than within the Republican foreign policy establishment, currently undergoing some much needed soul-searching of its own. In the realm of foreign policy the GOP is essentially divided between two camps: the moderate realists usually associated with Cold War warriors like Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, but also including the likes of Mitchell Reiss, Colin Powell, Richard Haass, and Robert Zoellick on the one hand; and the upstart-turned-dominant neoconservatives most closely identified with the George W. Bush administration.

The issues Hagel is being scrutinized for are at the very core of the divisions between these two camps. On defense spending, moderate Republican administrations like those under Eisenhower, Nixon, and Bush Sr. have initiated some of America’s largest defense cuts in the post-WWII era, while more neoconservative-minded administrations like those of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have presided over some of its largest military buildups. Although Israel has enjoyed near universal backing in Washington since the late 1960’s, Republicans like Eisenhower, Bush Sr., and even Ronald Reagan have been the most willing to exert pressure on Tel Aviv when its policies conflicted with U.S. foreign policy. More recently, however, neoconservative Republicans have vied and arguably outdone the Democrats in demonstrating their unconditional support for Israel foreign policy, and done their best to demonize all who had the audacity to do otherwise.

U.S. policy towards Iran and its nuclear program also illuminate core differences between the realist and neoconservative wings of Republican foreign policy. Traditionally, the GOP has been the more cautious of the two parties in initiating large-scale military conflict, having done so only once (the Spanish-American War) before the first Gulf War (although Republicans, starting with Lincoln, never shirked from a war that was thrust upon them.) Instead, moderate Republicans dating at least as far back as Teddy Roosevelt have been the most able practitioners of diplomacy, even when that entailed negotiating with adversaries and rogue states they disdained, like the Vietcong, Maoist China, Egypt under Sadat, Iraq and Iran during the 1980’s, and the Soviet Union.

By contrast, the neoconservative camp that has dominated post-Cold War Republican foreign policy has struggled to find a conflict, dictator, or foreign policy challenge in which the U.S. military didn’t provide the optimal solution.  Much like the more radical elements of their party in Congress, negotiating and compromising with ideological opponents is antithesis to the neoconservative foreign policy camp, and they have shunned it time and time again, from the Soviet Union and North Korea in the early 1990’s to Iraq and Iran in the 21st Century.  Similarly, no international treaty has proved too sensible, or Cold War treaty too sacred, to not warrant the neoconservatives’ strongest opposition.

Chuck Hagel didn’t create these divisions, but his nomination will almost certainly deepen them. Indeed, the battle for the soul of Republican foreign policy has already begun.

Zachary Keck is assistant editor of The Diplomat. He can be found on Twitter: @ZacharyKeck.