In the aftermath of the departure of Chuck Hagel as U.S. Defense Secretary, little is expected to change in the way the U.S. military establishment views Russia.
President Barack Obama, left, listens as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, talks about his resignation during an event in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, November 24, 2014. Photo: AP
In the aftermath of the Democratic Party’s defeat at the polls earlier this month, some kind of shake-up in the Obama administration was certainly foreseeable. Who, wondered the Washington press corps, would take the fall for the midterm debacle? The target of such speculation over the past few weeks had been Presidential confidante Valerie Jarrett. So many observers were taken aback when it was announced that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel would be served up as the administration’s sacrificial lamb after only 22 months on the job.
From the outset, it was rough going for Mr. Hagel. Upon Mr. Obama’s announcement that the former Nebraska Senator would be his choice to succeed establishment figure Leon Panetta as his choice to lead the Pentagon, a raft of stories appeared in the neoconservative press questioning Hagel’s fitness for the job. One of the more visible fixtures in the capital’s foreign policy firmament, former Ronald Reagan and George Bush administration figure Elliot Abrams, went so far as to accuse Hagel of being an anti-Semite. He was far from alone.
A well-known professor of international relations, Dr. Eliot Cohen, took to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post to tell readers that Hagel’s military service in Vietnam (in which he was twice wounded in combat) was utterly irrelevant. Far more relevant to Cohen was whether one considers “his views on Iran sound or feeble, his comments about ‘the Jewish lobby’ inoffensive or ugly, his views on a policy of extensive assassination — sorry, ‘taking terrorists off the battlefield’ — unremarkable or chilling, his apology for harsh remarks about a gay ambassador sincere or opportunistic.”
A neat trick that. In the space of one sentence, Cohen managed to imply that Hagel was: a) a friend to the Mullahs b) an anti-Semite c) an indiscriminate warmonger and d) a homophobe. And the Post wasn’t done there. In a blog post dated December 12, 2012, neoconservative blogger Jennifer Rubin, like Abrams, in the absence of any evidence, accused Hagel of “rank prejudice against American Jews.”
While he was able to weather the character assassins from without the administration, Hagel proved to be no match for those within it. That Hagel’s defenestration has all the subtlety and class of a Susan Rice operation is almost beside the point. The problem is the metric by which Hagel’s tenure is said to have been found wanting. Chuck, so goes the conventional wisdom, just wasn’t good on camera.
And so what now? Those worried that the elimination of one of the precious few realists in the administration will lead to a more confrontational policy towards Russia oughtn’t. That policy, one which aims to make Russia a “pariah” state, has been in place since at least April and Hagel or no Hagel, the key national security committees in the U.S. Senate will be under Republican control for at least the next two years. In other words, U.S.-Russian relations are now in for even stormier weather regardless of who is unlucky enough to be tapped for the post.
As of this writing, the odds-on favorite seems to be former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, about which (besides that she is apparently well-liked and respected on Capitol Hill) little seems to be known. Another suggestion came courtesy of young Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who declared that his choice for the job would be neoconservative stalwart Joe Lieberman. Informed observers believe that former Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter and Rhode Island Senator (and former Army veteran) Jack Reed are also on the shortlist.
And so Hagel’s ouster actually has rather few implications for American foreign policy. In this administration, policy has been and will continue to be, the sole purview of a handful of Presidential loyalists. The results speak for themselves.
The opinion of the authors may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.