The Hegel Factor

I think Ezra gets it just about all right in his attempt to understand the mystery that is Chuck Hagel.
As far as I can tell, Ezra thinks that Hagel’s biggest challenge will
be finding a "constituency for a sober foreign policy
realist." This may be true, but I think it’s part of a much bigger
problem for Chuck Hagel: G.W.F. Hegel.

Of course, Hegel won’t be running for president. But his shadow will be hanging all over the GOP primary. A while back, TNR’s Jeffrey Herf explained how Condi Rice in particular, and the Bush admin in general, have adopted a troublingly Hegelian view of history:

idea that a decision cannot be judged at the moment but only
retrospectively opens a slippery slope of justification. The future
Secretary of State was indulging an understanding of politics favored
by advocates of a Hegelian view of history—most of whom have, in the
last century, been communists.

The capacity of history to absolve political actors is a cynical and
immoral doctrine. No one can know for sure how political decisions will
turn out. Iraq may emerge as a stable democracy. Yet that fact would
not justify having gone to war in spring 2003 based on false premises.
It would not excuse the woeful lack of preparation for battle after the
major combat operations. Nor would such success justify the use of
torture. Nor would it absolve the leading officials of the Bush
administration, including Rice, who declined to share their
uncertainties about the facts in Iraq with the public. Nor would it
excuse their decision to allow rampant speculation that Saddam had
something to do with September 11 to percolate among Americans. Nor
would it render moot their assertions, made with far more confidence
than the facts allowed, that the threat was so imminent that a war
could not be delayed until fall 2003 or spring 2004.

Simply put, the Hegelian view of history is what explains the modern GOP’s
obsession with striking poses for history’s watching camera. It is the
conviction that there can be no such thing as accountability in the
present, history will provide absolution.

This is exactly the spirit that Republican leaders have invoked to
sidestep questions about why we went to war, whether we planned for it
adequately, whether our use of torture is morally problematic, etc.
What we are doing will put us on the right side of history, they claim
- and it will put critics on the wrong side. To them, history’s vote is
the only one that matters. And when you convince an entire chunk of the
electorate to think this way, your chances of getting them to embrace a
critique are next to nil.

The appealing thing about Hagel, to Democrats, is that he seems to
embrace American mistakes as opportunites to do better, to right a ship
that’s gone off course. But to Republicans, who are focused chiefly on
vindicating themselves instead of improving themselves, this view is
anathema. This, I think, will be Hagel’s biggest challenge in a
presidential primary: Convincing Republican voters that a sensible,
realist critique of American policy can jibe with their need to
suppress dissent and criticism, in case Doris Kearns Goodwin is

- Daniel A. Munz