Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
Following weeks of trial-balloon conjecture, President Obama nominated Chuck Hagel, the former Senator from Nebraska and oft-described "moderate Republican," to succeed Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense.
Conservative critics had raised objections as soon as Hagel's name surfaced as a probable nominee in mid-November. The usual pack of neocon watchdogs charged him with being inadequately hawkish on Iran and out of lockstep on Israel.
Towing its increasingly neocon editorial line, the Washington Post on November 18th editorialized that Hagel was "not the right choice for defense secretary." Citing the ex-Senator-cum-Washington insider's public record, the Post asserted: "Mr. Hagel's stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term." (Hagel once had the temerity to suggest that Pentagon spending should be "pared down." Imagine!)
Detractors dredged up a back-when Senate vote against Iran sanctions as rightwing media hacks echo chambered alleged "anti-Semitism" based upon the Senator's years ago use of the phrase "Jewish lobby". He certainly rankled some Israel right-or-wrong types in 2006 when he said, "I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator. I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States, not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I'll do that."
Liberal backers, in response, immediately sprung to the Nebraskan's defense. The Atlantic's James Fallows described him as a "wise bipartisan pick" with Vietnam combat-vet cred and a "cautious realist-centrist record" while filleting the "bogus case against Chuck Hagel."
Hagel in August 2005 had won favor among centrist types when he became the first Republican Senator to publicly criticize the Iraq war and to call for US withdrawal. Criticizing then-President Bush, the GOP, and the Patriot Act's erosion of civil liberties that December, Hagel stated that, "I took an oath of office to the Constitution, I didn't take an oath of office to my party or my president."
He later went on, in 2007, to criticize plans for the Iraq war "surge." Such rank-breaking statements, while endearing him to disquieted anti-war moderates, have never been forgotten by the Right.
The problem today is that neither Hagel's detractors nor his supporters have really fully laid out who he is or why progressives should firmly oppose his appointment as the Pentagon's top gun. Certainly, those to the left should not fall into the trap of cheering on Obama's latest War Department pick, solely because the Right stands opposed.
Currently a member of the board of directors of Chevron, Hagel led the charge in 1997 to block ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement that would have committed the US and other industrial nations to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Hagel-Byrd Resolution, co-authored by the coal-friendly Democrat, West Virginia's Robert Byrd, argued that the Kyoto failed to include developing countries and posed barriers to US economic expansion.
On his way through the revolving door to higher fame and fortune, Hagel announced in September 2007 that he would not seek a third term in the Senate. While his current mainstream biographies note that he happens to teach at Georgetown, they somehow consistently miss mentioning that he might have to give up his current position on Chevron's board.
He probably will have to rotate out of his seat as co-chair of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, the appointed body of "distinguished citizens selected from the national security, political, academic, and private sectors... independent of the Intelligence Community, free from day-to-day management or operational responsibilities. with full access to the complete range of intelligence-related information."
Hagel also currently sits on the board of directors of the American Security Project, a Washington-based imperial think tank committed to "understanding and articulating American beliefs and values related to U.S. foreign policy," and forging a domestic "bipartisan consensus" on "a new national security strategy that will restore America's leadership..." Founded in 2007, with Hagel and Hillary Clinton's State Department heir apparent, John Kerry, as founding members, the American Security Project is heavily involved in "energy security policy research," and "the national security need for biofuels" (i.e., the "greening" of the Pentagon) as well as "cultivating strategic responses to 21st century challenges."
If he receives Senate confirmation, Hagel's current position as Chair of the non-governmental but immensely influential Atlantic Council will most likely be placed on hold, at least until he returns to "private life."
Seldom discussed, the Washington-based council was founded 50 years ago as an elite foreign policy NGO committed to forwarding US "national interest" and continued Cold War supremacy within the "Atlantic community" and beyond. According to foreign policy critic Rick Rozoff, it was established in 1961 by former Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and Christian Herter to bolster support for NATO. Under US leadership, Atlantic Councils were set up in affiliated member states for the same purpose.
A recent list of Council associates reads like a "who's who" of the Washington foreign policy establishment. Henry Kissinger's disciple, the former National Security adviser Brent Scowcroft has played a significant role in shaping the contemporary organization. Obama's first National Security Advisor James L. Jones and UN Ambassador Susan Rice, the first pick to succeed Panetta at the Pentagon, formerly worked for the AC.
Hagel's predecessor as Council Chair, Jones had been a Marine Corps four-star general, top commander of U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2003 to 2006. He also served as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's special envoy for Middle East security and in that position openly discussed deploying NATO troops to the West Bank, a recommendation echoed by his Atlantic Council colleague, Scowcroft.
Scowcroft, a retired Air Force general and National Security Advisor under Presidents Ford and George H. W. Bush, is now the chairman of the Atlantic Council's International Advisory Board. Co-chaired by Hagel, the Council's Strategic Advisors Group is a standing body of roughly 40 senior experts on NATO and transatlantic security issues. Founded in 2007 by then Council Chairman Jones, Scowcroft, and others, the Strategic Advisors Group describes itself as the "pre-eminent institution for strategic thinking and analysis on Euro-Atlantic security" through its "thought leadership" on issues such as Afghanistan/Pakistan, and NATO's Strategic Concept. The group produces major public policy briefs and reports, and hosts off-the-record "Strategy Sessions" for senior U.S. and European civilian and military officials, while providing "informal, expert advice to senior policymakers."
With Chuck Hagel at the helm, the Council's attentions have increasingly turned toward Central and South Asia. As part of that pivot, especially toward oil and uranium rich and strategically located Kazakhstan, the Council undertook a project in 2010 entitled "Eurasia as Part of Transatlantic Security." Also headed by Hagel, that effort has sought to "shape the transatlantic debate on security in Eurasia..."
The council's Eurasia Task Force has been funded by a grant from the Kazakhstan government, currently ruled by the authoritarian "president for life," Nursultan Nazarbayev. Additional support has come though the Council's Strategic Advisory Group as well as from EADS-North America, the US subsidiary of one of Europe's largest military aircraft manufacturers currently providing weaponry to repressive regimes across Central Asia.
While still in elected office and well before he joined the board of directors at Chevron (today a major investor in Kazakhstan's Caspian Sea oil fields) or became Chair of the Atlantic Council, Hagel had been the only US Senator to visit all five Central Asian republics. His dovetailing interests and ties to the region have continued since.
In May, 2010 Michele Kinman, the deputy director of Crude Accountability, an environmental citizen action group concerned with Caspian Sea regional issues, addressed Hagel at Chevron's annual Board of Directors' meeting.
Kinman pointed out how Chevron was intensely involved in hydrocarbon projects in Kazakhstan fraught with violations of environmental law, a lack of transparency and, ultimately, scandal.
She pointed out how Chevron was then poised to sign a major agreement with the authoritarian government of Turkmenistan to develop the country's largely untapped hydrocarbon reserves. Noting Hagel's clear interest in, and ties to, Caspian oil and gas development, she also pointed to his stated record in support of transparency and anti-corruption. She called upon him to be put his weight behind a call for Turkmenistan, one of the world's most repressive countries, to "dramatically and measurably improve its human rights and accountability record before Chevron invests in its hydrocarbon sector."
Kinman went on to argue that "if Chevron engages with a repressive regime such as Turkmenistan to secure hydrocarbons without first insisting on significant, demonstrable improvements in human rights, transparency and rule of law, it will strengthen anti-democratic tendencies and stifle the development of an already severely compromised civil society, as it has in Burma, Nigeria, Columbia and in numerous other countries around the world."
Addressing the now-would-be Secretary of Defense, she went on: "Senator Hagel, as a new board member, you have a tremendous opportunity and responsibility to raise the bar for corporate responsibility in the Caspian to a level that is in accordance with the Chevron Way, for starters, but more importantly, in accordance with international law and practice."
"Senator Hagel," she asked, "Are you prepared to insist that your company take a principled stance in favor of human rights in Turkmenistan today?"
Hagel did not respond to Kinman. Instead, Chevron CEO John Watson encouraged Crude Accountability to write the Senator at a later time.
Perhaps during his confirmation hearings, some current Senator will elicit some answers to similar questions regarding Hagel's concerns for "energy security" and a his apparent willingness to overlook the nature of repressive regimes in exchange for such. That prospect is unlikely.