CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee questioned former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, nominated to be secretary of defense, in the background you could almost hear the drums of war beating.
The angry tone and hair-trigger belligerence of such respected figures as John McCain, who bullied Hagel for one-word answers to complicated subjects, and the insinuation by Oklahoma's Jim Inhoffe that his former colleague was the nominee of the Iranian government were shocking.
Hagel's own mild, almost insouciant testimony was disappointing for the opportunity lost by his passivity.
The hearing was an opportunity to clarify profound questions of how to define national strength, and when, where and why the mightiest nation in world history should project its military power.
Oversimplified for emphasis, the two parties divide along these lines:
In the Republican right wing, one can hear the tom-toms of war beating with muffled fury; on the Democratic far left are the peace-at-any-price Chamberlains. And then there are thoughtful leaders of both parties who calculate the interests, values and consequences of military action.
These are distinctions that date back to two great presidents, the muscular Teddy Roosevelt and the high-minded Woodrow Wilson.
In Henry Kissinger's massive and impressive "Diplomacy," he concludes that Wilsonianism prevailed over TR's aggressive view. It seems to this reporter that the worst of both visions occupied the first decade of the 21st century.
Kissinger believes that "Roosevelt started from the premise that the United States was a power like any other, not a singular incarnation of virtue. If its interests collided with those of other countries, America had the right to draw on its strength to prevail."
He had no regard for international law, believing that the international community could not safeguard what any nation could not defend by its own power. He could not have foreseen NATO, an invention of collective security.
Proclaiming lofty principles without the muscle to enforce them irritated TR. He wrote a friend, "If I must choose between a policy of blood and iron and one of milk and water ... why I am for the policy of blood and iron. It is better not only for the nation but in the long run for the world."
It goes without saying that our role as defenders and promoters of freedom would not be as influential if it were backed only by the armed forces of Costa Rica.
But the Rooseveltian principle of "might makes right" in 1908 could not have anticipated how Japanese militarism and imperial ambitions would engage U.S. interests when he acquiesced in Japanese occupation of Korea.