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Can Chuck Hagel Exorcize the Ghost of Neocons Past?

What will it mean to have a dissenter like Chuck Hagel as an ombudsman at the top at the Defense Department?  

The debate over Chuck Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense has centered around a number of his past positions that seem to have very little to do with the principal role he has been appointed to serve — overseeing the downsizing of the military industrial complex. 

The position of Secretary of Defense was created after the Second World War to manage a colossus that by 2011 accounted for more government spending than Medicare, Medicaid and children’s health benefits combined. The position of Secretary of Cuts, as MSNBC’s Evan Puschak recently dubbed it, will require deft political skills and resource management savvy in order to change the system from within. In the case of an outspoken dissenter like Hagel, this task will also require the settling of some old scores. 

After influential neoconservatives like William Kristol touted Hagel as a possible running mate for George W. Bush in 2000, Hagel attracted neocon ire in 2006 when he became the chief Republican dissenter on Iraq. Here’s what Hagel said at the time:

When I think of issues like Iraq, of how we went into it — no planning, no preparation, no sense of consequences, of where we’re going, how we were going to get out, went in without enough men, no exit strategy, those kinds of things — I’ll speak out. I’ll go against my party.

Hagel was also going against neoconservatives like Kristol, who make up a Washington think tank establishment that might be described as the intellectual arm of the military industrial complex. And that is why Hagel’s nomination is shaping up as a replay of the Iraq War debate. Not only are the political wounds from the last decade still raw, Hagel also faces an entrenched culture at the Pentagon that is hostile to dissent. 

As Peter Beinart argues in the Daily Beast:

What makes Hagel so important, and so threatening to the Republican foreign-policy elite, is that he is one of the few prominent Republican-aligned politicians and commentators (George Will and Francis Fukuyama are others, but such voices are rare) who was intellectually changed by Iraq. And Hagel was changed, in large measure, because he bore within him intellectual (and physical) scar tissue from Vietnam. As my former colleague John Judis captured brilliantly in a 2007 New Republicprofile, the Iraq War sparked something visceral in Hagel, as the former Vietnam rifleman realized that, once again, detached and self-interested elites were sending working-class kids like himself to die in a war they couldn’t honestly defend. 

What’s the Big Idea?

The appointment of Hagel, who saw Iraq as “an absolute replay of Vietnam,” is about “accountability for the Iraq War, as Chuck Todd put it. So what should we reasonably expect Hagel to do as an ombudsman at the top? How might he apply the lessons learned from Iraq and change the culture of the Department of Defense? 

Mistakes happen, says Tim Harford, aka “Britain’s answer to Malcolm Gladwell.” Harford argues that organizations need to create a culture where these mistakes are “revealed, exposed and corrected as soon as possible.” More on that in a moment.

As Peter Beinart pointed out above, we have a culture in Washington where very few people were changed intellectually by the Iraq War the way Hagel was. One notable exception is Francis Fukuyama, who told Big Think that when he broke with neoconservative orthodoxy on Iraq he needed to overcome the fear of social rejection and not being afraid to “piss people off.”

Watch the video here:

What’s the Significance?

Like Hagel, Fukuyama has received backlash for his dissent. So how can we create a culture within an organization where the guy who says the emperor has no clothes on might be listened to? 

In his book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, Tim Harford extracts some clear lessons from Iraq to illustrate his point that, among other things, Iraq became a quagmire due to the failures of top-down leadership. 

Donald Rumsfeld’s mistake in Iraq, says Harford, was to institute a policy that created the total suppression of dissent. Rumsfeld wouldn’t say, or allow others to say, the word “insurgent,” which amounted to, in Harford’s view, a “bizarre Orwellian dance around a word” that accurately described the situation the coalition forces were facing. As a result, commanders in the field had to risk life and limb, as well as great damage to their careers, by going against the official policy. 

Watch the video here:

Lest we give Harford the last word on this debate, we gave Rumsfeld an opportunity to respond to during his Big Think interview. In his characteristic style, Rumsfeld told us:

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During my time in the Department of Defense we had to and did in fact give military commanders enormous freedom and flexibility.  There was nothing like you’re seeing now with the White House where a President of the United States and the Oval Office is picking targets.

I don’t know who this person [Tim Harford] is that you’re citing and I don’t know what he wrote, but what I’ve just said is the fact that if you do something somebody is not going to like it.  You’re going to be criticized and sometimes you’re criticized for having too strong a hand and sometimes you’re being criticized for not being engaged enough in managing the process.

One time I said to a commander down some distance who had been on the Syrian border and in Iraq. People had been fired on and he responded to me that he’d responded proportionally and I broke my rule. Instead of dealing with this man’s boss, the CENTCOM commander, out of my mouth came the comment, “Why did you respond proportionally?  If you want to get your people killed that’s a good way to do it. They fire a few shells and you fire a few shells and the next time they’re going to hit some of our people and kill them. Why wouldn’t you respond disproportionally?  Why wouldn’t you make sure they understood that that’s not a good thing for them to be doing, firing into locations where US military people are and killing our people?”  

And I got back and I apologized to General Casey. I told him immediately what I had done and that I didn’t know what his instructions were down the line. But there is an old rule that you never expect to learn anything up the chain of command because you’ve got to recognize that it gets all strained.  You have to go talk to people and so forth to learn, but you ought to never give a command down, except down the chain of command and I didn’t.  

I think if I were to be criticized probably it would be for too light a hand rather than too heavy a hand in terms of military guidance down the line.  We approved broad military plans, had a lot of interaction, but once we agreed to them then they were out implementing them and we did not try to micromanage them because the enemy has a brain.  No plan lasts after first contact with the enemy.  Once you get down there then you have to begin adapting and adjusting because for every offense there is a defense and for every defense there is an offense.  

Image courtesy of Shutterstock


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