Recently, we've heard plenty of criticism about Chuck Hagel. Hagel isn't pro-Israel enough, critics say. He isn't sufficiently hawkish on foreign policy. He's too conservative on social issues. And so on. But notice what people aren't saying. No one's saying Hagel isn't qualified enough.
That's because he's extremely qualified.
Hagel knows about war. More importantly, Hagel knows about war's costs -- not just on the treasury, but also on human life. If confirmed, Hagel would be the first Vietnam veteran to serve as secretary of defense. A defense secretary should be intimately familiar with war, should know exactly what he is sending the men and women who serve under him into, and Hagel has experienced war's horrors firsthand. He even hauled his wounded brother to safety after he hit a landmine.
In addition to his war experience, Hagel's Senate experience means he knows firsthand how stressful and pernicious political wrangling can be for our troops. He has a keen sense of what abstract debate in Washington can mean for soldiers who are actually bleeding, sweating, and dying on foreign soil. Because of this knowledge, he can bring considerations to the table that go beyond abstractions, beyond cold calculations of geopolitical costs and benefits. This concern for our troops is reflected by Hagel's tireless advocacy for our veterans in Congress.
In sum, his background combines two experiences -- statesman and soldier -- and it seems to me that these experiences are what we need most in a defense secretary. As President Obama said, Hagel is "the leader our troops deserve."
Granted, some people are worried that Hagel may be anti-gay. I don't think he is anti-gay; he has apologized for an offensive statement he made in the '90s, and there isn't much else in his recent past to suggest his views would be problematic. Whatever the case, Hagel is being considered for the position of secretary of defense. His influence on social issues is therefore limited, and as a result his opinion on gay rights is largely beside the point. It is extremely doubtful that Hagel would go against Obama on the issue.
Some are also worried that Hagel is "anti-Israel." This is nonsense. Hagel's characterization of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and groups like it as the "Jewish Lobby" has contributed to the view, but while Hagel could have chosen (much) better words, this alone does not provide evidence that Hagel is anti-Israel. As journalist Peter Beinart told CNN:
"Yes, it would be more accurate to call it, I think, the kind of right-wing, pro-Israel lobby. But the truth is many of the people in the pro-Israel lobby are, in fact, Jewish, as is myself. One of the groups is the American Jewish Committee. So to suggest this is in any way anti-Semitic, when many, many Jews, including a rabbi from Omaha, [have] testified to [his] good relationship with [the] Jewish community... is character assassination, to be honest."
I think a lot of the fear coming from the right stems from anxiety that Hagel's nomination signals a continued shift away from the Bush Doctrine. And indeed, it does. Obama has already proven he is much less inclined to put troops on the ground than Bush was and that he believes a smaller, more technology-driven military is better for America's financial and strategic futures. As someone who has witnessed war, Hagel is also hesitant to put our troops' lives at risk, so it is easy to see why he appeals to President Obama. Their views on our military's global role mesh.
Whether you agree with Hagel's foreign policy views or not, the character assassination must stop. Certain features of his past are being grossly exaggerated in order to cloak the real anxieties of Hagel's critics -- namely, the fear that Hagel is not a proponent of the Bush Doctrine. There is no question: Hagel is a patriot. Having championed veterans' rights for decades, he has proven himself, despite his gaffes, to be a principled politician, one who will not treat our soldiers' lives like cannon fodder.
I say give him a chance.