Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Chuck Hagel and the Sad State of "Conservativism"

President Obama's choice of former senator Chuck Hagel to be his new Secretary of Defense should be the cause for wide Republican support. Hagel is a decorated Vietnam veteran and a Republican with a lifetime rating of 84% from the American Conservative Union with a strong traditional conservative voting record. But not so fast. Senator Lindsey Graham expressed dismay at Hagel's nomination:

"This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel."

Say what? 

If you have followed Hagel's career (he was my hope as a presidential candidate in 2004), then you know that Hagel is a supporter of Israel. But he has also been willing to criticize the Likud Party for its policies, and the Israeli lobby for its attempts to influence U.S. policy (or actually, those politicians easily intimidated by the lobby). Here is a statement from an interview Hagel gave:
“The political reality is that you intimidate, not you — that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. Again, I have always argued against some of the dumb things they do because I don’t think it’s in the interest of Israel. I just don’t think it’s smart for Israel."
If anyone does not think that the Israeli lobby has vastly disproportionate influence on American politicians, you are living in a universe that is disconnected from reality. Some critics have desperately latched on to his usage of "Jewish lobby" as opposed to "Israeli lobby," suggesting some sort of sinister racial or ethnic nuance is intended. This is quite ironic considering the Likud government's shift from insisting on the right of "the state of Israel" to exist to the right of "a Jewish state of Israel" to exist."

The real reason some Republicans oppose Hagel is because he is a traditional conservative, not a neoconservative. Traditional conservatives have always been modest in their views of foreign policy, reluctant to become involved in foreign affairs unless the national security interests of the Republic were at stake. The neoconservative movement was born in the cold war, as liberals who saw the menace of Soviet communism for what it was allied themselves with traditional conservatives. But the instincts of these new or neo-conservatives were not of the same prudent nature as their traditional counterparts, and this tension came to the surface in the aftermath of 9/11. As a traditional conservative, I approved of the campaign to destroy Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, but I was adamantly opposed to trying to rebuild Afghanistan into a modern democracy, and I was horrified when the second President Bush, who campaigned for a "more humble foreign policy," decided to listen to the neocons and invade Iraq.

Unfortunately, neocons have so completely come to dominate the Republican Party that traditional conservatives are the exception rather than the rule, and neocons like Lindsey Graham can speak of a traditional conservative like Chuck Hagel as an affront to the right. And this leads me back to Russell Kirk, whose writings I have been exploring in this weekly Tuesday posts about conservativism. In his chapter on the neoconservatives in The Politics of Prudence, Kirk famously observed, "And not seldom it has seemed as if some eminent Neoconservatives mistook Tel Aviv for the capital of the United States" (p. 180). 

How sad is it when Chuck Hagel can express virtually the same sentiment as the acknowledged founder of the conservative movement and be vilified by people like Lindsey Graham. It shows just how far the Republican leadership has drifted away from its traditional conservative moorings, and just how desperately America needs a new party of common-sense, traditional conservativism.

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