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Containment That Dare Not Speak Its Name

In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, Paul Hauptman writes that Chuck Hagel was correct when he described the Obama administration policy toward Iran as “containment.” “We are,” he writes, “approaching containment by deed, if not by label,” because the policy over the last four years has allowed Iran to reach the threshold of nuclear weapons capability. 

Hagel’s now famous testimony–reading his opening statement that he supports the president’s prevention policy; then saying in unscripted remarks that he supports the president’s containment policy; then reading a note handed to him to re-instate his prior statement (and bungling that too)–unfortunately reminds me of an apocryphal anecdote and an old joke. 

The anecdote involves the pliant politician Huey Long installed as governor, who was working in his office one summer day with the window open. A leaf blew in and landed on his desk. He signed it. The joke is the classic insurance one about the man whose friend tells him he heard about the fire that burned down the man’s store. The man responds: “shhh–it’s happening next week.” 

For a president planning a flexible foreign policy, it helps to have a guy at Defense willing to sign on to whatever it says on the statements prepared for him, or the notes handed to him. You just hope he doesn’t prematurely disclose how your policy is going to “evolve.” It would have been perfect if Hagel had leaned over and signed the note too, but only rarely does life completely imitate a joke. 

From the beginning, the principal problem with the Hagel nomination was not his view of Israel or Jews, but the signal the nomination sent to Iran. The signal is even clearer now that the White House still supports Hagel, notwithstanding a performance that should have disqualified him even if he had announced a previously unknown lifetime membership in AIPAC. Future historians will be surprised to learn that Hagel’s testimony was not apocryphal, but it will be useful in describing how an oft-stated policy of prevention became an unstated policy of containment. For an even more succinct explanation, Hauptman’s letter will suffice. 


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