Framing the Debate Pt. 1 - Hagel and the Washington Post

There are a couple points I wanted to make regarding the recent discussions over President Obama's potential nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense.  They have to do less with the substance of the job offering itself, and more with how restricted our thinking has become without us even realizing it.

The standard, acceptable discourse in America is framed in such a way by the media that it ensures the status quo will not be challenged.  We so easily find ourselves caught up in the he-said, she-said mode of discussion that we lose sight of the very principles we're supposed to be discussing in the first place.  By arguing within the frame of debate they set for us, we limit our perspective and become hardened to the idea that we can do better.  The end result is that we are more and more willing to make concessions and accept our fate - spending our time not arguing over ideas, but their leftover tiny scraps.

The Simple Move to the Right

Chuck Hagel was a Republican Senator from a red state who, despite breaking the mold by vocally challenging the Bush administration on the Iraq war, still voted with Republicans the vast majority of the time during his tenure in the Senate.  It is a rather common tactic for presidents to pick moderates (and Hagel is considered one - most Republicans simply fall in line) from the opposite party to fill certain cabinet positions in a show of good faith.  This, of course, is nothing new for Obama, who chose Bush-appointee Robert Gates for the same job in his first term.

Yesterday, the Washington Post editorial board took Obama to task for this move, arguing that Hagel has outlandish views on foreign policy which "fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term".  But the indictment is not that of Obama's failure to live up to the (largely unfounded) progressive hype surrounding his presidency. The Post is simply upset because "the usual role of such opposite-party nominees" is to "move...toward the center", and presumably Hagel's nomination does not achieve this.

Thus, we've arrived at a scenario in which Obama's ambition to be a great mediator whose bipartisanship ushers forth a new era of American politics does not even impress the beltway journalists who clamored for him to take that approach in the first place.  At the same time, his consistent moves to the 'center' never actually appease his right-wing detractors in the corporate media.  They will continue to pick at the minutia of leftism he shows, knowing that as they do so the sphere of debate moves further and further to the right.

This has long been the shared goal of those worst elements of disinformation who originated the mantra about Obama being an anti-American socialist/communist.  If Obama - who is center-right at best - even can be argued to have some socialist tendencies, then clearly those to the left of him must be full-blown socialists themselves.  And if those 'socialists' are by definition anti-American, that means they can be either ignored or vilified without a second thought.

Perpetual War

Where the Post really shows its colors, though, is in where it tells us Hagel has gone wrong.  First, he has dared to suggest in interviews that he believes defense budgets could be cut (!).  This is even more of a crime than usual, because both the current Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, and the military are arguing against it.  You see, normally we have a system you could call "You can't put a price on safety":  the military asks for money, and since the military are the experts on the military, they get it.  But now things might change.  There's a chance - just a chance - Hagel could implement some of those 'checks and balances' we always hear about, and actually stand up to the heads of staff rather than becoming their willing stooge.   Clearly, that's a possibility we just can't entertain.

Even more damning, Hagel actually "argued that direct negotiations, rather than sanctions, were the best means to alter Iran’s behavior."  This position is untenable for foreign policy 'realists', and it probably kills them that they can't outright call Hagel - who served in Vietnam with a distinguished record - an idealistic peace-loving hippie.  Of course, it can't be possible that he understood the toll those sanctions would eventually take on civilian life, and how they would only embolden and strengthen the current regime (as sanctions tend to do, time and time again).  Nor could the fact he had seen war firsthand have played into his rejection of a method which so often leads to it.  He's just simply not on the right page, and was "isolated" on this issue in the Senate as a result.

The fun doesn't end there, though.  The Post has yet to serve up its most healthy dose of hardened foreign policy realism yet:
"Mr. Hagel has elsewhere expressed strong skepticism about the use of force.  We share that skepticism — but we also understand that, during the next year or two, Mr. Obama may be forced to contemplate military action if Iran refuses to negotiate or halt its uranium-enrichment program."  [emphasis mine]

You see, they share his skepticism, but unlike his nancy-ass two-time Purple Heart self they realize life is about the hard choices.  They know that sometimes a president is forced into going to war, and when that happens, he needs people around who aren't going to question him.  People who are willing to lie to the world about enriched uranium and what not.  And you know we clearly never want to go to war, but Iran is just pushing, and pushing, and pushing.  What are the good people of the world to do when such an evil nation forces our hand?

Of course, none of this conforms to reality at all.  The case against Iran is so ridiculous at this point - even if you don't take into consideration the fact that the main aggressor in the region (Israel) already has nuclear weapons - that certain countries have polluted the discourse with nonsensical "leaks" in order to further their position.  And you don't have to be Glenn Greenwald to see the eerie similarity between this and the tactics used in the run up to the Iraq War.

But here's where this all ties in:
"What’s certain is that Mr. Obama has available other possible nominees who are considerably closer to the mainstream and to the president’s first-term policies."
[emphasis mine]

There it is.  Chuck Hagel just isn't mainstream enough.  The most amazing part of this is that Hagel does not even endeavor to challenge the core tenets of American foreign policy.  He simply disagrees on a few small issues, which may not even come into play given that he'd be working under an administration that is all about the mainstream.

Make no mistake, the Washington Post knows exactly what it's doing here.  It's important to keep in mind throughout all this that they are running an editorial they know will be controversial, just to let everyone know that they do not endorse a nomination that is only rumored to happen.   By painting Hegel as an outsider, someone with positions far from the norm, they condense the debate into extremely narrow terms.  The question of who is best for a Defense Secretary becomes limited to whether or not the nominee is sufficiently pro-war; whether or not they fall in line with the mainstream, serious, insider opinion.  Not a single person will dare criticize Hagel from the left now.  How can you, when he's under such an assault?

If he is indeed out of the mainstream - too far to the left on these issues - where does that put the rest of us who actually want to challenge the broader issues? 

Those who are more than willing to turn this discussion into one of aggression and war - rather than that of defense - might instead take the words of a previous president and general who knew the military better than anyone:  "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in a final sense a theft from those who are hungry and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed."

Is it not disturbing how far that sentiment is from our everyday conversation?


In the next installment (coming soon, if all turns out well), I'll discuss the attacks on Hagel coming from the standpoint that he doesn't support Israel enough, and how the labeling of him as anti-Semitic is just the next step in making that term nearly meaningless.


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