The conventional wisdom, cracker barrel style

Bret Stephens argues that, although Team Obama praises Chuck Hagel for political courage, in reality Hagel’s views consistently echo a safe, conventional beltway wisdom. Stephens points to Hagel’s hostility to Bill Clinton’s gay nominee for an ambassadorship; to his support during the 1990s for “don’t ask, don’t tell”; to his vote in favor of going to war with Iraq; to his turn against that war when it went badly; and to his support for engagement with Syria’s Bashar Assad, North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, and Iran.

Stephens isn’t wrong. But Hagel tends to serve up the conventional wisdom with a crude, unbeltway-like twist.

For example, conventional opposition to the nomination of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxemburg held that the time was not yet right for a gay ambassador. Hagel’s suggestion that such an ambassador couldn’t properly represent American values and standards took the opposition to a less refined level.

Or consider Hagel’s opposition to the war in Iraq. Opposition was widespread by the time Hagel got around to joining it. But Hagel went beyond the conventional wisdom when he asserted that this was a war for oil:

People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are. They talk about America’s national interest. What the hell do you think they’re talking about? We’re not there for figs.

If this is conventional wisdom, it is that of the bar room or the cracker barrel. Most conventional critics of the war understood that it could not reduced, Marxist style, to a war for oil.

Then, there is Hagel’s expression of unhappiness about the power of the pro-Israel lobby. Many in Washington believe it is too influential. But unlike Hagel, they don’t view the lobby as “Jewish,” or at least they avoid calling it that. Nor do they claim that the lobby wants Senators to represent Israel, rather than the voters in their home state. So here again, Hagel has given a nasty twist to the conventional wisdom.

Some might praise this as plain talk. But to me, it reflects reductionism, which normally is the sign of a weak intellect.

I expect cabinet nominees to embrace the conventional wisdom of their political party. If they add value to it, that’s a bonus. But I also expect cabinet nominees — especially for the top jobs — to have enough sense of nuance to avoid subtracting value from the conventional wisdom through a crude rendering of it.

This is another standard that Chuck Hagel fails to meet.

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