Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, who has won a contentious confirmation process to become Defense Secretary
Washington's conventional wisdom is that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was badly damaged by the ugly smear campaign of his confirmation process and by the 41 no votes in the Senate, but this Republican temper tantrum obscured a more important reality, that the neocons have lost their last toe-hold in the Executive Branch.
For the first time in decades, the neoconservatives find themselves on the outside of Washington's executive power looking in. With the ignominious departure of General David Petraeus as head of the CIA in November and the retirement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in January, they now have no powerful allies in any key national security position.
There is also the likelihood that the Obama administration will bend more than it should to the noisy neocon presence in the corridors of power. The neocons, after all, are famous for their readiness to deride and disparage anyone who gets in their way. And such nastiness tends to induce fear among people even with important titles.
But there is this overriding fact: the neocons failed in asserting what they had hoped would be their last power over the Executive Branch: vetoing disfavored government nominees. Despite the neocons' preemptive assault on Hagel before his nomination was made, President Barack Obama pressed ahead with his choice for the Pentagon.
Then, the Senate Republicans took up the neocon cudgel against their former Republican Senate colleague, turning his confirmation process into a venomous assault on someone they deemed a turncoat for having dared criticize President George W. Bush's Iraq War and then endorsing Obama for President in 2008.
Hagel has indicated, too, a preference for real negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear program rather than simply a steady escalation of sanctions and hostilities leading inexorably to war, as Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many neocons seem to prefer. And Hagel ventured into the real world again by detecting in Washington the presence of an Israel lobby.
So, both in the Senate Armed Services Committee and on the Senate floor, Republicans bashed Hagel for having the audacity to criticize some Israeli policies, for his openness toward Iran, and for his curious belief that there indeed was a lobby in Washington advocating for Israeli interests.
Besides hammering Hagel as allegedly "anti-Israel," some Republicans like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz suggested that Hagel might have accepted payments from America's enemies -- like maybe North Korea -- although Cruz acknowledged that he had no evidence to support his innuendo.
McCarthyism to Go
Others played a favorite neocon game of truncating a person's quotes to make them seem outrageous. "Senator Hagel has accused Israel of quote, 'playing games' and committing, quote, 'sickening slaughter,'" said Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker before Hagel's confirmation vote on Tuesday. Oklahoma's Sen. Jim Inhofe cited the same "sickening slaughter" quote regarding Israel.
However, as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank noted in an article entitled "McCarthyism 2013," the full quote from Hagel was made during the 2006 Lebanon war when Sen. Hagel pleaded for a ceasefire and said, "This sickening slaughter on both sides must end."
But the neocons find such even-handedness objectionable. They condemn any practice of "false equivalence," i.e., comparing the violence from Israel or the United States to the behavior of adversaries. To the neocons, violence inflicted by Israel or the United States is always justified while violence from enemies is always "terrorism."
As Milbank noted, the war on Hagel extended beyond traditional neocon circles to Tea Party favorite, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who "gave credence to a hoax, published credulously in the conservative press, that Hagel had received funds from a fictitious group called Friends of Hamas. Asked about this by radio host Hugh Hewitt, Paul replied, "You know, I saw that information today, also, and that is more and more concerning.'"
With Hagel's confirmation on a 58-41 vote, the best the neocons can now hope is that a chastened Hagel will be more submissive toward their demands, particularly about a possible war with Iran over its nuclear program. But another possibility is that Hagel and Obama will retaliate by closing the door further on neocon influence over policy.
By standing by Hagel, Obama showed that he has learned something from his first term when he often bent over backwards to appease the neocons. He kept in place George W. Bush's military command from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the neocons' favorite general, David Petraeus. Obama also put in hawkish Democrat Hillary Clinton at State and she brought along a number of neocon-lite advisers.