Hagel Update: Crocker Endorses Hagel, Flournoy Signed PNAC Letter

With Sen. Chuck Hagel’s possible nomination still up in the air, several developments over the last couple of days should be noted, including this unqualified endorsement of Hagel in the Wall Street Journal, of all venues, by Ryan Crocker (ret.), the former U.S. ambassador in both Baghdad and Kabul and something of a neocon heartthrob almost at the level of Gen. David Petraeus. I explained a little about how significant Crocker’s endorsement is in this post I wrote when Crocker was one of nine former top-ranked foreign service officers who signed a letter supporting him back when the controversy over Hagel first broke out two weeks ago.

Meanwhile, outgoing Democratic Rep. Barney Frank denounced Hagel in categorical terms based on the comments he made about Amb. Hormel’s nomination back in 1998. As noted by other commentators, Frank had spoken out in favor of Hagel as a prospective Pentagon chief when his name first surfaced, and frankly, his opposition now seems somewhat bizarre, particularly given Hormel’s acceptance of Hagel’s apology. Andrew Sullivan is particularly good on this. But what also seems bizarre about Frank’s denunciation is his nearly three-year-old campaign, along with Ron Paul, to make serious cuts — the degree contemplated by the sequester — to the defense budget over the next ten years. I would imagine that few people would be better placed to sell such cuts politically than Hagel, a former Republican Senator and two-time Purple Heart recipient? Certainly, neither of the two candidates tipped as alternatives to Hagel — Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter or former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy — would have the political credibility to do the job, especially with a Republican-dominated House. The facts that neither one has actually served in the military and that both have long worked and, to some extent, depended for their professional advancement on the “military-industrial complex”, make it far less likely that they would be willing to seriously challenge that complex’s interests. Hagel, on the other hand, has precisely the independence and political stature to do so. So the question is whether Frank considers an obnoxious 15-year-old statement for which Hagel has tendered an (accepted) apology more important than reducing the defense budget by a meaningful amount? It’s very difficult to figure out unless 1) the Massachusetts congressman considers the apology insincere, or, as M.J. Rosenberg suggested to Phil Weiss, that he is doing the bidding of the Israel lobby which had tried (for the most part unsuccessfully) to mobilize LGBT groups against Hagel’s nomination.

Weiss’s post actually somewhat anticipated what I wanted to write today regarding both Flournoy and Carter, Hagel’s putative rivals for SecDef who have now been profiled by Right Web. The point that Phil makes very well here is that both individuals, however smart, competent, level-headed and even right-minded on key issues (like the scepticism about a military solution to Iran’s nuclear program) they are, appear to see neocons as entirely respectable national-security “intellectuals” deserving of at least a “seat at the table” in the higher councils of policy-advising and -making. Personally, I, like a number of much more serious policy analysts such as Paul Pillar, feel that neocons have completely discredited themselves, especially with regard to the Middle East, and, by leading the charge to war in Iraq, have essentially forfeited their “right” to be taken seriously on these issues. Of course, the mainstream media continues to give them access and attention, not only because of their own ideological predilections (American “exceptionalism” and all that), but also because of their polemical skills, notably their ability to break down any dimly understood overseas conflict into a moral struggle between good and “evil” or a question of U.S credibility. (Rupert Murdoch also helps.)

Thus, we have Carter participating in the 2008 Bipartisan Policy Center task force whose conclusions and recommendations I, as Phil correctly notes, described as a “roadmap to war.” Those conclusions and recommendations, which were drafted by Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, were adopted by consensus, although not every member of the task force, which was staffed by Rubin and Michael Makovsky (who has never denied reports that he once served in the IDF or lived on a Jewish settlement on the West Bank) necessarily agreed with every conclusion and recommendation. We don’t know what Carter may or may not have agreed with. But his voluntary association with such a group — look at the members and you’ll see what I mean — shows, in my view, a certain lack of judgment at best.

So with Flournoy, who, like Carter, otherwise appears to be an entirely sensible person who has, for example, repeatedly stressed the folly of U.S. unilateralism when it comes to military force, and who rejects the idea of “coalitions of the willing.” Despite that, she appears to be the neo-conservative favorite for the job. (The Journal just republished the piece Paul Wolfowitz wrote on Flournoy last week.) The Right Web profile cites her contribution to the Progressive Policy Institute’s study in 2003 on Democratic Internationalism and how it paralleled in some worrisome respects what associates of the Project for the New American Century were putting out at the same time.

What it doesn’t cite is the fact that Flournoy was herself a signatory of a PNAC letter back in 2005, just before the group went dormant …eventually to be re-incarnated as the Foreign Policy Initiative. The subject was the necessity for increasing the number of U.S. ground forces, and, while the signers consisted mostly (as usual) of neo-conservatives, they also included a smattering of retired generals and “liberal hawks”, such as the (still-unreformed) Peter Beinart, Michael O’Hanlon, Ivo Daalder, James Steinberg, and Walter Slocombe. You should read the whole letter to get the idea, but the heart of it asserts:

[A]fter almost two years in Iraq and almost three years in Afghanistan, it should be evident that our engagement in the greater Middle East is truly, in Condoleezza Rice’s term, a “generational commitment.” The only way to fulfill the military aspect of this commitment is by increasing the size of the force available to our civilian leadership.

The administration has been reluctant to adapt to this new reality. We understand the dangers of continued federal deficits, and the fiscal difficulty of increasing the number of troops. But the defense of the United States is the first priority of the government. This nation can afford a robust defense posture along with a strong fiscal posture. And we can afford both the necessary number of ground troops and what is needed for transformation of the military.

In sum: We can afford the military we need. As a nation, we are spending a smaller percentage of our GDP on the military than at any time during the Cold War. We do not propose returning to a Cold War-size or shape force structure. We do insist that we act responsibly to create the military we need to fight the war on terror and fulfill our other responsibilities around the world.

Now, to me, this doesn’t sound very good. In fact, it sounds like a recipe for imperial over-extension of precisely the kind that Paul Kennedy (another liberal signatory) warned against before 9/11. To be precise, it sounds very neo-con. The question is why Flournoy signed on? Especially when most of the signatories are neocons. And not just the more “moderate” neocons like Bob Kagan, but the really Islamophobic neocons like Frank Gaffney and James Woolsey, who were babbling about Islamo-fascism and “World War IV” at the time. Again, there appears to be a lack of judgment here, a willingness to give credibility to individuals and organizations that don’t deserve it.

I should note that Marsha Cohen contributed substantially to this post.

Photo: Senator Chuck Hagel shakes hands with Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta shortly before Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey deliver remarks as the keynote speakers at the Forum on the Law of the Sea Convention held at the Willard Intercontinental Washington Hotel, Washington D.C, May 9, 2012. (DoD Photo By Glenn Fawcett)(Released)  

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.