The final insult to George W. Bush's foreign policy may have come in the form of a Republican ex-senator from Nebraska.
Chuck Hagel's nomination for secretary of defense has stirred opposition on both the left and the right, but the most vehement objections have come from the conservative, interventionist foreign policy community -- the so-called neoconservatives who created the ideological architecture for the wars Bush launched in Afghanistan and Iraq.
For much of President Barack Obama's time in office, right-leaning foreign policy leaders have taken heart from his extension of key Bush policies. Obama has wound down both wars, but he also retained Bush's last defense secretary, Robert Gates; kept open the detention facility at Guant?namo Bay; massively stepped up the use of drones and added troops to the war in Afghanistan before more recently drawing back.
While Obama has cast his administration as a clean break with the past, there has been much in his record for the right to like. Republicans even sought some credit for the killing of Osama bin Laden, arguing that Bush-backed interrogation tactics may have helped bring down the Al Qaeda kingpin.
The Hagel nomination is different -- and may represent the president's most dramatic turn away from the national security tenets of his predecessor.
At least on a symbolic level, Hagel represents a newly sharp break with the policies of the Bush administration, a clear rejection of Bush-style unilateralism and aggressiveness abroad. He has criticized proposals for using force against Iran, opposed Bush's troop surge in Iraq, called for talks with Hamas and rejected little-challenged staples of foreign policy like the Cuba embargo.
If some liberals have criticized Obama for nominating a Republican with a questionable record on gay rights and climate change, others are touting his nomination as a delightfully blunt dismissal of the sacred cows of post-Sept. 11 conservative foreign policy.
"Obviously, [the Hagel nomination] is reigniting the whole 'neocon versus the rest of the world' debate about, when is the appropriate use of force called for," said former Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, whose comeback Senate bid Hagel crossed party lines to endorse last year. "Twenty years ago, Chuck was a mainstream conservative when it came to foreign policy. Today, he's being described both by conservative friends of Israel and a group loosely defined as neocons, as more on the left."
One Democratic foreign policy strategist cast the Hagel choice as a "break from Bush-era thinking because it is a repudiation of the neoconservative movement."
"He is the anti-neocon," the Democrat said, calling Hagel a throwback to a more moderate age of Republican foreign policy. "The GOP has two security camps, right? Neoconservatives -- [Arizona Sen. John] McCain, [former Connecticut Sen. Joe] Lieberman, [South Carolina Sen. Lindsey] Graham -- and isolationists [like Kentucky Sen.] Rand Paul. Hagel's campaign doesn't exist anymore; they all switched teams. A repudiation of Bush? Sure, but also a dramatic demonstration of how much Republican national security thinking has changed because of Bush."
Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO supreme allied commander and Democratic presidential candidate, said the Hagel nomination wasn't "a particular push on an ideology," but suggested the right flank of the foreign policy community had gone out on a limb by attacking the nomination.
"It was the kind of opposition that's like a show of strength, by a group in the Republican Party who are associated with strong and conservative national security positions. OK, they've made their statement," Clark said. "Now they're going to have to deal with Sen. Hagel the man himself."
"The fact that he's had reservations about how force is used and so forth, that shows his thoughtfulness," said Clark, who noted that the Obama administration has hardly been reserved in its use of drone strikes or its commitment to the war in Afghanistan.
Of course, Obama didn't choose Hagel as one final attack on his predecessor, nor has it taken Obama four years to turn the page on the Bush foreign policy in significant ways. The White House has presented the decorated Vietnam veteran as the ideal man to lead the Pentagon through a difficult time: an independent thinker who has lived through combat and who won't be intimidated by generals in uniform once he takes the job.
To the extent there's a larger takeaway from the nomination, foreign policy veterans said it is likely the president has reached a point of confidence and comfort in the job that he wanted a genuine kindred spirit at the Department of Defense.
It's only natural that a defense secretary choice who's explicitly in line with Obama's thinking would also represent an overt rejection of Bush, even if that nominee happened to serve in office as a Republican.
"I see [the nomination] as Obama liberated from politics and confident in his own decision-making abilities now, too, choosing someone who he just genuinely likes and respects," said Brookings Institution scholar Michael O'Hanlon. "And perhaps also Hagel's reticence to use force is particularly useful in light of where the Iran -- and Syria -- files may go."
One former Republican Cabinet official offered this read on the Hagel nomination: "It sends a message that Obama wants a guy who is not going to stand and fight on budget levels and wants to get out of Afghanistan as quickly as he does."
"To me, he's exactly the sort of person that I think Obama would pick," the Republican said. "His problem is that he is seen by the Republicans as just a total opportunist who switched sides when it was in his own interests. Not that that's anything new in Washington."
Still, the conservative opposition to Hagel exceeds -- in volume and intensity -- almost any other national security uproar of Obama's first term. And the criticism is more substantive than most Republican attacks on Obama's foreign and national security policy. (At the height of the 2012 campaign, GOP candidate Mitt Romney struggled to explain how he'd handle conflicts in Afghanistan and Libya differently, except that he'd be stronger than Obama in some hard-to-define way.)
The groups blasting Hagel's nomination, such as the Emergency Committee for Israel, see him not just as one more data point in a flawed Obama foreign policy but as the most brazen attack yet on long-untouchable tenets of center-right foreign policy.
"Take every hot button issue on foreign policy -- Iran, defense spending, Israel, Cuba, sanctions, negotiating with terrorist groups -- and Hagel has found a way to both alienate and unify the people who care about these issues," said Brian Hook, a former assistant secretary of state under Bush. "It's a remarkable feat. I don't think this was a politically smart nomination given the many substantive concerns it presents."
Pete Hegseth, the conservative Iraq War veteran who heads Concerned Veterans for America, said it is hard to explain the nomination except "there is a personal 'I like him, and we both opposed Iraq' angle. There is no other serious or rational reason for the pick."
"Objections to Sen. Hagel's perspectives on Iran, Hezbollah, Israel and the current conflict in Afghanistan are legitimate, and a matter of record," said Hegseth, who unsuccessfully ran for Senate in Minnesota last year. "As an Iraq War veteran, I was personally dumbfounded by Sen. Hagel's continual attempts to undermine our commitment to that conflict."
Democrats counter that claims of shock and dismay are too cute by half. Yes, Hagel represents a bright-line departure from certain pieties of the past, but it's not as if Obama has tiptoed around his views about the Bush administration anyway.
Democratic strategist Jonathan Prince, who advised the Obama State Department, said Obama's "been pretty clear about ending these multifront wars. He campaigned on them."
"He's been campaigning on those since 2007. The idea that somehow picking Chuck Hagel in early 2013 means that it's somehow Obama's true colors about ending the wars, revealed, is kind of crazy," Prince said. "Not only is he not hiding from that fact, he arguably got elected in the first place because of it."
Kerrey, who called Hagel part of the "Ronald Reagan school of keeping America's military strong," shrugged at the unfurling debate over the symbolism of the nomination.
"Actually, I don't know what the hell the larger message is, come to think of it," he said.
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