The angry tone and hair-trigger belligerence of such respected figures as John McCain, who bullied Hagel for one-word answers to complicated subjects, and the insinuation by Oklahoma’s Jim Inhoffe that a former colleague was the nominee of the Iranian government were shocking.
Hagel’s own mild, almost insouciant testimony was disappointing for the opportunity lost by his passivity.
The hearing was an opportunity to clarify profound questions of how to define national strength, and when, where and why the mightiest nation in world history should project its military power.
Oversimplified for emphasis, the two parties divide along these lines:
In the Republican right wing, one can hear the tom toms of war beating with muffled fury; on the Democratic far left are the peace-at-any-price Chamberlains. And then there are thoughtful leaders of both parties who calculate the interests, values and consequences of military action.
These are distinctions that date back to two great presidents, the muscular Teddy Roosevelt and the high-minded Woodrow Wilson.
In Henry Kissinger’s massive and impressive Diplomacy, he concludes that Wilsonianism prevailed over TR’s aggressive view. It seems to this reporter that the worst of both visions occupied the first decade of the 21st century.
Kissinger believes that “Roosevelt started from the premise that the United States was a power like any other, not a singular incarnation of virtue. If its interests collided with those of other countries, America had the right to draw on its strength to prevail.”
He had no regard for international law, believing that the international community could not safeguard what any nation could not defend by its own power. He could not have foreseen NATO, Wilson’s invention of collective security.
Proclaiming lofty principles without the muscle to enforce them irritated TR. He wrote a friend, “If I must choose between a policy of blood and iron and one of milk and water … why I am for the policy of blood and iron. It is better not only for the nation but in the long run for the world.”
It goes without saying that our role as defenders and promoters of freedom would not be as influential if it were backed only by the armed forces of Costa Rica.
But the Rooseveltian principle of “might makes right” in 1908 could not have anticipated how Japanese militarism and imperial ambitions would engage U.S. interests when he acquiesced in Japanese occupation of Korea.
Korean independence was guaranteed by treaty but, TR thought, “Korea was itself helpless to enforce the treaty, and it was out of the question to suppose that any other nation … would attempt to do for the Koreans what they were utterly unable to do for themselves.”
Roosevelt understood the mechanics of world power, yet, as Kissinger puts it, his successor Wilson “grasped the mainsprings of American motivation … Whatever the realities and the lessons of power, the American people’s abiding conviction has been that its exceptional character resides in the practice and procreation of freedom.”
Wilson instinctively understood that to overcome American isolationism he would have to appeal to its belief in the exceptional nature of its ideals. Step by step, he led America into World War I by denying selfish interests and affirming its ideals.
However, he took altruism to its logical extreme by declaring that our purpose was to make the world safe for democracy, which implied that we would be the world’s permanent defender of freedom everywhere, all the time.
In the first decade of this century, a group of conservative intellectuals, the neo-conservatives or neocons, such as Richard Perle, Paul Wolfovitch and Vice President Dick Cheney, came to dominate George W. Bush’s foreign policy.
They combined the worst elements of Roosevelt’s power politics and Wilsonian idealism into the theory of pre-emptive power, military strikes against any bad guy who might, just might, one day, in the dim future, attack us.
This is how President Bush explained pre-emptive power: “I will not wait on events while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.”
Thus began the crusade to rid the world of Iraq’s demonic weapons, which did not exist, and to free the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein, which has finally come to a chaotic end without any true democracy there.
An opportunity to define how to use the best of Roosevelt’s pragmatism and Wilsonian idealism passed in the Hagel hearings because U.S. senators, like small-time demagogues, insisted on hectoring a passive nominee.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.