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Rope-a-Dope: Will It Work for Hagel?

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Chuck Hagel let himself be mugged by a gang of Republican senators last Thursday. They demanded his watch (Iraq), he gave it to them. They demanded his wallet (Iran), he gave it to them. They demanded that his Last Will and Testament make Israel his sole beneficiary; he did it. He only balked when they demanded he take a blood oath to join them in their next escapade. Then they slapped him around to punctuate warnings as to what awaits him if he entertains any crazy ideas of getting back at them. Democrats were content to put balm on the wounds or opted to be Kitty Genovese onlookers. A parody? Yes -- but not by much.

Is this just another scene in the comic tragedy that has become American foreign policy -- and, frankly, our public discourse generally? In this case, there surely was more reason for crying than for laughing. Hagel has the character and the mind to reject the play-acting, to use the occasion to confront the bullies while tutoring the American public about the realities of international life as we should have relearned them from a decade's worth of abject failure and shame. For some reason, he chose not to. That will exact a price. We know the pat explanation repeated by all the pundits. Rope-a-dope, get through the hearing, don't ruffle feathers, get confirmed and then hit your stride once you are running the Pentagon. You'll be your own man.

It's not that simple, though. That passive approach is vintage Obama. The advice to Hagel came from the White House where it is hallowed wisdom. Obama's own results from following such a strategy are anything but encouraging. What they fail to recognize is that the collective frame of reference for understanding recent history is being created. The Republican onslaught is part of a relentless -- and highly successful -- campaign to instill in the collective consciousness the belief that what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan was necessary, and worked. The country is better for those enterprises. They grind into us some basic, primitive notions: we live precariously in a menacing world; force is the only way to fight those who threaten us; we have shown that; anything less is fatal weakness; we got Osama bin Laden by hardening our hearts; we must act preventively; Iran is evil incarnate -- willful and irrational; there are only a few friends we can count on -- Israel, above all.

This is a gross misreading of what's transpired and a caricature of the real world we face. It's a cartoon. But that cartoon has lodged itself in our minds thanks to assiduous efforts by those with a dogmatic or career stake in its acceptance. Just think of the massive, complete rehabilitation of those who conceived, instigated and executed those Mad Hatter adventures that were the jewels in the crown of the great "war on terror." They hold lofty positions in top universities, they dominate the think-tank world, they are deferred to by the media, and they rule intellectually over Congress. They have held the position of Secretary of State. They, and their fellow travellers, ruthlessly exclude dissidents as heretics. Their signal victory is in setting the conventional wisdom about American's national interests and strategies.

Barack Obama has chosen to do nothing to ensure that we as a people got our own history right, that we learn from our experience, that the sensible are vindicated. In truth, he accepts much of the discredited worldview -- as witness the Afghan escalation, the strenuous efforts to keep troops in Iraq, the drone wars, our ever expanding hunt for self-styled jihadis in over a score of countries -- not to mention draconian curbs on Americans' civil liberties in the name of security.

Chuck Hagel chose to be passive not because he has sold out -- politically or intellectually. He is a man of conviction and character. He has spoken articulately and unequivocally over the years about the calamity of Iraq. He has questioned in detail the orthodox view that it is impossible to talk to Tehran except to accept their surrender. He has a far more sophisticated view of the world than does Obama. There is every reason to think that he will be a strong voice for reason, caution and modulation in regard to all the challenges we face in the Islamic world. Will he prevail? That is another story. And it may well be that his slack performance before the Senate Armed Services Committee will diminish the chances of it having a happy ending.

The images and ideas from the hearings that stick will work against Hagel, his positions, and the readiness of the White House to adopt them. Appearances count -- nowhere more than in the thinking/feeling of Barack Obama. He has gotten a taste of what he'll encounter were he to deviate from the conventional wisdom on any issue that affects Israel and on Iran. He got no taste of what an effective, forceful retort might look like. Hagel could have provided one. Under instruction from the White House to bob and weave, he did not try. Placed in this unaccustomed position, instructed not to cross swords with Sen. John McCain et al., he lost his self-assurance and aplomb. Unless you're a born dissembler who is free of conviction, struggling to master the art of slipping punches does not come easily -- as it does for others of recent and vivid memory. Nor does striking poses of mock combativeness. Hence his fumbling and stumbling over the lines he was fed.

Remember that at the end of his "rumble in the jungle" with George Foreman, Muhammad Ali knocked out his arm weary opponent. The McCains of our world will never weary. The President has never thrown a straight right in his life. Skeet shooting will not change that.
Hagel is likely to find these circumstances daunting. He didn't help himself by the performance last week.