Hagel saga portends Republican tragedy


Author: Jacob Surpin

Chuck Hagel, despite the best efforts of the Republican minority in the Senate, will be the next United States Secretary of Defense. The events of the last couple of weeks, during which a vote on Hagel’s nomination was effectively filibustered by Republicans in the Senate (an unprecedented event), have resonance not for the results they will bring but rather for their narrative drama. In placing the Hagel saga into the grand drama of today’s GOP, what emerges is a distinct division between the party’s fundamental belief in the individual and the groupthink by which the party operates. It is this division which threatens to reverberate throughout the crumbling walls of the GOP’s decreasingly cohesive base.

First, the characters in the drama: Hagel, a former Republican Senator; Ted Cruz (R-TX), a junior Senator and Tea Partier; John McCain (R-AZ), former Presidential candidate; and President Obama, who nominated Hagel and for whom the play was a comedy – not a tragedy, as it was for the GOP.

Next, the acts and scenes. Hagel’s name was first leaked as a possibility for the next Secretary of Defense in Dec. 2012, and his own party immediately made him the primary target of their verbal warfare campaign. At first, the criticism primarily centered around Hagel’s position on Israel. A committed supporter of Israel, Hagel is also a proponent of the two-state solution (which, incidentally, is the official policy of the United States government). Republicans criticized him as an anti-Semite for comments he made in an interview in 2008 when he mistakenly referred to the American Israel Political Action Committee the “Jewish lobby.” Hagel’s record, however, shows a long history of serving the best interests of Israel – a commitment that at times has forced him to object to some of their more aggressive international policies. Alon Pinkas, the chief of staff to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, wrote in Al-Monitor his opinion on the comments made against Hagel. “Hagel is not anti-Israeli and he is not an anti-Semite,” he wrote. “In fact, if I were him, I would lodge a complaint with the Anti-Defamation League, asking their assistance and support for being unfairly called an anti-Semite.”

The defamation of Hagel’s name did not stop there. McCain called him stupid for voting against the surge in Iraq and refused to vote for him. McCain teamed with Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in attacking and seeking to embarrass Hagel at his confirmation hearing, interrupting and insulting him at every turn. Republican vitriol climaxed when Cruz, who only just took office, accused Hagel of fraternizing with terrorists and forces that are opposed to U.S. interests, even going so far as to question whether any of his income could have come directly from North Korea. This blatant mischaracterization was too much for McCain. Marking a distinct shift in the debate, McCain publicly criticized his fellow Republicans for their attacks on Hagel’s character and announced that he would now vote for Hagel.

We, the paying audience, must decide what to make of this. At first glance, the attacks made by the GOP on one of its own seem downright strange. And they are. But they make perfect sense when viewed within the larger drama of the GOP’s identity today. Hagel is not afraid to differ from majority opinion or to speak his mind. He does not, in the words of Connie Bruck of the New Yorker, “shirk a fight.” He volunteered for the Vietnam War, and he knows that war has costs. He supports the two-state solution, opposed perpetuating the Iraq war and is unlikely to be baited into a military engagement with Iran.

These positions are very different from the current Neoconservative Republican party line. Hagel is an individual, the sort of man that the Republican party has celebrated for the past century. Today’s GOP, however, cannot tolerate him because he did not put the interests and the positions of the party above everything else.

With that being said, the ideology of the ultra-right has not shifted away from the individual; if anything, it has been radicalized even more in that direction. But there is a tension in the party between their ideology and their practices, in which any individual who dares to differ from the party politic is discredited and exiled. The nomination of Hagel offered the more sane members of the Republican party an opportunity to reconcile their ideology and practices into coherence, to distance themselves from the Tea Party and return to a time when conservatism stood for something. The GOP’s failure to recognize its own blood in the person of Hagel – and to turn on him instead – is reminiscent of Euripides’s “Bacchae,” in which a mother, in the throes of Dionysian madness, rends her own son’s body and feeds on his flesh. It is the latest scene in the great drama of the Republican party, which continues to veer towards tragedy.

Jacob Surpin is a junior ECLS major. He can reached at surpin@oxy.edu.

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