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Hagel's Resignation Shows Failed Foreign Policy Knows No Party

25/11/2014 10:33 GMT | Updated 24/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Whether he fell on his sword or was pushed, Chuck Hagel's departure is the latest in a series of foreign policy missteps. It leaves the administration bereft of a Veteran Secretary of Defense at the most dangerous time in recent memory. And if Hagel's appointment as a Republican Senator to a Democratic administration was hailed as a rare example of bipartisanship, his resignation can be seen as an emblem of that failed approach, too.

But Hagel's departure points to dysfunction not just within the Obama administration but the foreign policy establishment in general. It is the parties and the wider system that have been unable to deploy power effectively against a resurgent Russia and the murderous ISIS, to provide the reassurance of steady American leadership.

Hagel, of course, was never a neo-conservative hawk but came from a generation of Republicans and Democrats alike whose defining experience was Vietnam. Their greatest life lesson was that the military should never again be led by politicians into an open-ended engagement without the clear prospect of victory.

American politics and world events move so quickly that we sometimes forget that it took the first Gulf War to fully exorcise the ghost of Vietnam. General Colin Powell's doctrine of overwhelming military superiority to include ground troops and widespread public support for military action meant the expulsion of Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait was achieved speedily, honorably and completely.

Also less recognized is how relatively cautious President Reagan's military actions were in the last decade of the Cold War. Powell writes in his autobiography that the 1983 invasion of Grenada raised concerns about the ongoing operational effectiveness of the military in conducting even that limited incursion, particularly in field communications. Nor did Reagan follow those who denounced Carter's détente with the Soviet Union and argued for the forced liberation of Eastern Europe in the 1970s.

No, we had to wait for the presidency of George W Bush and the twenty first century, paradoxically, for the shrillest Cold War advocates of unilateral action to gain the levers of power and turn the clock back on the Powell doctrine.

The neo-conservatives who set the policy of regime change in Iraq and the backdrop to today's foreign policy debate have more in common with the apologists of the Obama administration than they would ever admit. For they were in fact radicals, arguing for a partisan departure from the doctrine of containment that served the US and the world so well for the last half of the twentieth century. Many of the intellectuals like Bill Kristol and Paul Wolfowitz who provided the ideological justification for the Iraq War also originally came from a left-wing Democratic tradition that emphasized increased social welfare and unionism alongside unqualified opposition to 'tyrants'.

It was this approach and the resulting unacceptable costs of the second Iraq War that led to an equally radical counter-revolution in foreign policy in the election of Obama, informed by far-left groups like MoveOn.org, promising an end to 'hawkish' foreign policy at all costs. But that led to, essentially, the surrender of the hard fought gains in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaving us with the worst of both worlds.

And so we arrive at the current situation of the Obama administration and seemingly daily crises. Decision-makers are still caught between the forces of an administration whose main initial conviction was that America has done too much to re-shape the world in its image and an emboldened but divided Republican opposition who have no clear answers of their own, but have resisted action when and where it is most needed. Most independent observers agree that ISIS is the result of the Syrian civil war, where Congress blocked military intervention.

The real-time significance of Hagel's departure is probably to try and turn a page on this paralysis. But it also, unfortunately, points to all the work that has to be done by Obama or his successor. The real price has yet to be paid, because the costs of inaction have been piling up for years. If the United States now has to ramp up military spending and defense posture against Russia, China and Islamic extremism, it will only be facing down problems it could have nipped in the bud- 'Obsta Pricipiis' - in the tradition of the American Revolution.

The good news is that although foreign policy has been trapped between the rock of a reactive Democratic administration and the hard place of an obstructionist GOP, partisanship in foreign policy is not a given.

In 2008 both parties considered presidential candidates with thoughtful foreign policy platforms that recognized America's unique and exceptional role in the international order. Governor Bill Richardson, former ambassador to the UN under President Clinton set out a plan to deal with resurgent threats with allies that foresaw challenges to international peace and even public health risks like Ebola. Mitt Romney was pilloried by Obama in 2012 for 'Cold War thinking' when he predicted Russian adventurism and has always understood that vigilance is the first priority of the American leader.

So Hagel's unhappy tenure is only the latest chapter in how polarization Stateside can wreck the ship of state abroad. But perhaps it will encourage genuinely bipartisan leadership that leaves the ideological divisions of the late twentieth century, and the hubris of the early twenty first, behind it. I'm sure that is a legacy he would welcome, from someone who already has much to be proud of.