President Obama's choice of former Senator and Republican Chuck Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense has brought forth vigorous opposition from a number of quarters, which is by and large unwarranted. In picking Hagel, Obama defied most conventional thinkers who predicted the selection of either Ash Carter, Current Deputy Secretary of Defense, or Michèle Flournoy, former Undersecretary, to replace Leon Panetta -- two highly qualified and easily confirmable candidates.
Hagel's opposition includes a substantial number of Jews, the majority of whom voted for Obama, as well as a significant number of neocons who have serious concerns about statements Hagel has made over the years. Indeed politics sometimes makes strange bedfellows. Even the Republican Jewish Coalition, a group of conservative Jews who did not vote for Obama, have voiced their concerns along with AIPAC (the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee) and others that Hagel may be anti-Semitic, or anti-Israel. In this case, however, much of what Hagel has said may be controversial but correct, and he should not be vilified for it.
Just why Obama picked Hagel is still uncertain. On a personal level, Obama likes and trusts Hagel. His service on the Presidential Intelligence Advisory Board has served to cement their relationship. Of even greater importance, however, is the compelling need to make ever more serious cuts in the defense budget which Hagel has courageously termed "bloated." Regardless of how the current bickering between the White House and Congress over spending levels that simply can't be sustained ultimately gets resolved, it is painfully obvious that needed cuts cannot come entirely from entitlement programs and that further cuts in defense spending will be needed if the budget is ever to be balanced, much to the dismay of many Republicans.
Hagel's unfortunate reference to the "Jewish" lobby instead of the "Israeli" lobby is simply that -- a trivial error in the use of a word, and not the mark of an anti-Semite. His actual remarks to Aaron David Miller, author of The Much Too Promised Land have a good amount of truth to them. The Israeli lobby does have substantial influence, and there are times when what they say is "dumb" and not in Israel's best interest. As a Jew, a conservative, and strong supporter of Israel, I have made the same criticism repeatedly myself over the past 40 years and would be loathe to castigate Hagel for it. At the same time, his voting record as a senator demonstrates unwavering support for Israel.
Whether or not Israel should negotiate with Hamas, as Hagel has suggested, is a subject of legitimate debate with both Americans and Israelis divided on the issue. The U.S. has negotiated with its own adversaries in war -- both hot and cold and Israel has long done the same. Indeed, Israeli negotiations with Hamas done through the auspices of the Egyptian intelligence service brought about a cessation of the most recent hostilities in Gaza.
Hagel's statements about Iran and sanctions have also given rise to much criticism, and is another area where legitimate differences of opinion exist. While I am a strong supporter of curtailing the Iranian nuclear weapons program in almost any way possible, I too have significant reservations about the effect of sanctions. Here it is clear that while sanctions thus far imposed have had a major effect in making the lives of many Iranians increasingly miserable, it is equally clear that they have had little effect the Iranian Government's approach to the program. egotiations thus far have been largely tactical and fraudulent. Quite possibly Hagel understands this more than some in Washington. What Hagel has said is that the consequences of a military strike on Iran should be carefully weighed beforehand. Coming from a combat veteran and potential Defense secretary this seems to make perfect sense.
An additional dimension of the debate over Hagel is that, as some of his defenders assert, he won't be setting foreign policy as Defense Secretary. This is total nonsense and Hagel doesn't need defenders like this. As Harvard's Juliette Kayyem correctly observed recently in the Boston Globe, the Secretary of Defense has vast resources at his command, and is a central member of the national security team. He will in fact have an important seat at the White House table when critical decisions are made. As we have learned repeatedly, just who the president listens to on any key issue is largely a function of his relationship with the principal and the information provided.
The evidence thus far is that Obama trusts Hagel, and is likely to heed his counsel on many of the important national security and foreign policy decisions he will face in the coming years. Hagel's inclination to speak his mind and act as a maverick isn't a bad thing at all. The nation has gone through a decade of wars that were ill-advised and couldn't afford. A voice at the table urging caution and a considered approach to possible future conflicts is something that at least some of us neocons would be happy to see.