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The Real Hagel Debate

Ever since former Senator Chuck Hagel's name has been floated as a possible nominee for Secretary of Defense, critics have been attacking his supposed lack of support (even "animus") for Israel. Bill Kristol went so far as to say a Hagel nomination would be a referendum on "who has Israel's back."

More relevant, I think, are the issues Josh Rogin zeroes in on:

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, rumored to be in contention for the job of defense secretary, has a long record of opposing sanctions on countries including Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya, and Cuba.

Hagel, who serves as co-chair of President Barack Obama's intelligence advisory board, throughout his career has publicly supported the idea of engaging with rogue regimes and focusing on diplomacy before punitive measures. While in Congress, he voted against several sanctions measures and argued vociferously against their effectiveness.

Hagel's stance on sanctions puts him outside of the current consensus of his Senate colleagues -- even outside the public position of the Obama administration, which has touted its harsh sanctions against Iran and has mostly maintained the panoply of economic shackles on Cuba, North Korea and Syria. His preference for engagement over confrontation is also at odds with President Obama's pledge to deny Iran a nuclear weapon no matter what.

The trouble for Hagel's critics is that the sanctions regimes against all of these countries have failed to produce the desired outcome. Iran and North Korea continue to advance their nuclear programs and missile programs, respectively. The Castros still rule Cuba. Assad remains in power in Syria and if he falls (or when he falls) no one will believe it was because the U.S. slapped sanctions on the ruling regime.

But that doesn't mean Hagel's supporters are going to have an easy time of it. In none of the above cases is it clear that engagement would work miracles (and to be fair, Hagel has said as much). The problem with most proponents of engagement is that it's difficult to claim on one hand that the U.S. has "vital" interests in a region or particular outcome and then whirl around and say the only way you'll pursue those interests is through dialogue. As I wrote in 2008:

By conceding the premise of American security interests, it’s easy to see why Democrats keep losing the politics. If America is to be the world’s policeman, who is the more credible figure: the state trooper ready to club the bad guys, or the security guard at the mall, brandishing a walk-talkie?

The politics have clearly shifted a bit since I wrote this, but there is still an environment of irrationality and demagoguery that hangs over these issues that makes it difficult to make the case for engagement unless you're willing to concede that the U.S. really doesn't have a vital stake in the outcome -- something Hagel (or any high office holder) is unlikely to do.

Hagel's position on sanctions also cuts directly against Washington's self-professed identity as moral arbiter of the globe. As Michael Rubin unwittingly demonstrates in his attack on Hagel, sanctions serve, in part, as a kind of moral affirmation for those in the U.S. foreign policy community who believe the purpose of U.S. power is the uplift of the human soul. In this view, you are morally suspect if you are unwilling to endorse collective punishment and subject literally millions of people to economic misery and hardship in the attempt to coerce a handful of people in a regime to change course.

It's also important to remember that Hagel's views on engagement and sanctions are just one question that needs to be resolved to everyone's satisfaction. Equally, if not more important, are his views on the kind of military the U.S. should field in the future and America's global defense posture. Where does he believe future defense dollars should be allocated? What kind of military would he want to build?