Chuck Hagel’s Big Problem: Being A Realist About American Power And Iran

By Stephen Kinzer

January 01, 2013 “The Guardian” —  What do Nebraska and Iran have in common? Not much – but enough to cause big trouble for former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, whose possible nomination to be secretary of defense is being challenged by the powerful bomb-Iran-yesterday lobby.

Iran, in its former incarnation as Persia, created the world’s first empire, produced titanic figures like Cyrus, Darius, and Xerxes, and is one of the great fonts of world culture. Nebraska was home to indigenous peoples for centuries. It became a state in 1867, and has produced an important literary figure, Willa Cather, as well as an investor said to be the world’s second richest man, Warren Buffett.

Nebraska also, however, produced fighters long before Chuck Hagel emerged. Crazy Horse, “Wild Bill” Cody, and General John Pershing were born there.

A group called Nebraskans for Peace has spent years waging a campaign against the US Strategic Command, which controls America’s strategic arsenal from a base in Omaha. The current headline on its website is, “Don’t Bomb Iran.”

Here is the heart of the case against Senator Hagel’s nomination.

Militarists in Washington, taking their cue from pro-Israel lobbyists, are trying to derail the appointment because Hagel doubts the wisdom of starting another war in the Middle East. Their evidence is his assertion, made several years ago, that:

“A military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.”

Hagel is absolutely correct. Like many thoughtful Americans, including some of our country’s most seasoned diplomats, he is eager to make a real effort to engage Iran. No American president has done that since Jimmy Carter’s presidency was immolated in the wake of the hostage crisis – except for Ronald Reagan, who tried sending Iranian leaders a cake and a Bible, to no avail.

Part of what has led Hagel to recommend a calm, reasoned, prudent approach to Iran is his own worldview. He is among the few in Washington who do not seem to have accepted the century-old principle that in order to defend its interests, the United States must be involved everywhere in the world, all the time.

Hagel is said to be “outside the mainstream” because he does not believe American power can solve people’s problems around the world. That is, indeed, outside the mainstream. Everyone from Pentagon deadenders to Human Rights Watch, for example, is trying to dissuade President Obama from his commitment to remove all American troops from Afghanistan by 2014. Hagel thinks it’s a fine idea.

Another charge against Hagel is that he has described the defense budget as “bloated”. That this can be considered controversial is a measure of how far from reality Washington has slipped. It is like describing Washington’s summer climate as “warm” or Congress as “divided”.

Hagel’s biggest problem, though, is Iran.

He wants to see whether a deal between the United States and Iran is possible. Such a deal is the nightmare scenario for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and those around him. They foolishly believe it would endanger Israeli security. In fact, it would do the opposite: reduce the threat from Iran by bringing it into the Middle East security system, rather than pushing it ever further into isolation and anger.

Challenging orthodoxy is a death sentence in Washington. It may result in the demise of Senator Hagel’s prospects. But his willingness to challenge dogma about Iran has deep roots in Nebraska.

Only one American has given his life for Iranian democracy. He was a young idealist from Nebraska named Howard Baskerville. In 1907, fresh out of Princeton, Baskerville went to Iran as a schoolteacher. He found himself in the midst of a revolution against tyranny, and was carried away with passion for the democratic cause.

Rejecting protests from the local American consul, he shaped a group of his students into a military column. On 20 April 1909, he was killed while leading them into battle.

Baskerville believed countries should be allowed to choose their own paths, whether or not big powers agreed. So did another notable Nebraskan, Senator George Norris, who voted against both United States entry into first world war and American membership in the League of Nations.

Norris told Americans that the push toward global engagement was the project of “munition manufacturers, stockbrokers, and bond dealers”; and he warned that it “brings no prosperity to the great mass of common and patriotic citizens”.

Hagel is in the great American tradition of the prairie populist. He has sought to speak a word or two of truth to power. Power is not amused. That is why his nomination is in trouble before it has even been announced.

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