Commentary Magazine


Will Kerry-Hagel Prevent War?

Many of those coming out in favor of Chuck Hagel’s presumptive nomination to be Secretary of Defense appear motivated less by love for Hagel and more by dislike for his opponents. The trend follows a common one in Washington. During the Cold War, there were anti-Communists and anti-anti-Communists. In the aftermath of 9/11, there were anti-terrorists and anti-anti-terrorists. The drawback in Washington is that the policy debate is often driven less by principle than by standing in opposition to perceived opponents. Nothing shows this more than the ad hoc coalition rally around Chuck Hagel who see nothing wrong with a man whose interpretation of honest policy disagreement is to question the loyalty of those who have the temerity to disagree with him.

It is likewise ironic to see progressives so obsessed with “neocons” (though most of those they label as such are not neoconservative) that they, in effect, form a coalition that makes a mockery of their own philosophical positions. I believe in a colorblind society in which jobs are based on qualifications rather than superficiality. The quotas often put forward by those on the left sound often sound like reincarnations of the infamous James Watt quote. Still, many progressives do believe in quotas and diversity of skin and sex rather than diversity of opinion. Therefore, it is ironic to see the pro-Hagel coalition in effect becoming the lobby for old, white, multimillionaires.

Perhaps the most misguided argument for a John Kerry-Chuck Hagel duo at the State and Defense Department is the idea that they are best suited to prevent war. This not only shows that many progressives have repeated conspiracies about their opponents’ lust for war for so long that they actually believe their own mantras, but also believe that appeasement—or generous “incentive packages”—for those who want to keep to diplomatic speak—rather than credible defense ameliorates conflict. Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security advisor, appears to make this argument. While Peter Beinart may like to label Hagel a new Eisenhower, a better parallel might be Dean Acheson, President Truman’s secretary of state.

On January 12, 1950, Acheson gave a speech in which outlined U.S. interests in Asia:

In the first place, the defeat and the disarmament of Japan has placed upon the United States the necessity of assuming the military defense of Japan so long as that is required, both in the interest of our security and in the interests of the security of the entire Pacific area… The defensive perimeter runs along the Aleutians to Japan and then goes to the Ryukyus. We hold important defense positions in the Ryukyu Islands, and those we will continue to hold… The defensive perimeter runs from the Ryukyus to the Philippine Islands. Our relations, our defensive relations with the Philippines are contained in agreements between us. Those agreements are being loyally carried out and will be loyally carried out… So far as the military security of other areas in the Pacific is concerned, it must be clear that no person can guarantee these areas against military attack. But it must also be clear that such a guarantee is hardly sensible or necessary within the realm of practical relationship.

Acheson continued to advise those states not covered by the defensive perimeter to resist on their own or rely on the United Nations. “It is a mistake, I think, in considering Pacific and Far Eastern problems to become obsessed with military considerations,” he explained.

The Brzezinski’s and Hagel’s of that day applauded, but there was a very different reaction in Pyongyang. Kim Il-Sung heard Acheson’s speech and determined that the United States would no long stand in the way of his ambitions. It was soon after that he launched the invasion of South Korea, a conflict which would take a half million lives.

Hagel’s neo-isolationism—or non-interventionalism, if some analysts prefer—may sound good in some quarters, but if the desire is to keep the United States out of war—a truly noble endeavor—then the best way to do so would be to place someone at the helm of the Pentagon who would counsel standing America’s ground rather than turning inward.

It’s time to drop the fiction that this choice is about war or peace. The debate is rather over the best way to maintain peace: through strength or through conciliation. The simple fact is this: Kerry at State coupled with Hagel at the Pentagon will make conflict more likely.