To hear some media portray it, there is a building case against Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. But, like the Susan Rice fiasco before, this is based on spurious assumptions and the comments of just a small handful of activists and a few senators. The case for Chuck Hagel is strong -- and he is also likely to be confirmed by the Senate.
Two immediate issues have come up regarding Senator Hagel that are being used to generate political opposition. First, he made intemperate comments about a Clinton era nominee to be Ambassador who was gay. Hagel has apologized for that 1990s transgression and it's been recognized that, like most Americans, his views have evolved over time into a more progressive understanding. That this conservative senator from Nebraska would make that shift is something to celebrate, not denigrate. Second, he also is accused, falsely, of being less than enthusiastic in his support of Israel because he once made comments about the Israel lobby being pervasive in Washington. This issue also will not gain much traction because Hagel's actual record regarding Israel and support for it is solid. Moreover, friends of Israel will have to decide if this is a fight they want to spend their capital on -- and risk opening a national debate over U.S.-Israel relations -- when much bigger issues are coming down the road including settlements, final status negotiations and decisions on whether or how to engage Iran. Is it really in the interest of Israel to open up a national debate here about the nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship at this pivotal juncture -- especially when there is no serious basis for concern regarding Chuck Hagel's nomination?
The more significant issue confronting the nomination of Chuck Hagel is that he does have a worldview -- one of realism and restraint -- which is antithetical to the consensus on foreign policy and national security that has come to dominate Washington, D.C. since the Clinton administration. Both major parties are, today, heavily influenced by neo-conservatives on the right, and liberal interventionists on the left. The consensus leans steadily towards doing "more" with defense, including spending. But today we live in an age of austerity, and it is essential to have a voice in the policy process which reflects strategic thinking that can guide outcomes. The defense budget should be aligned with wise strategic choices, not cut for the sake of cutting. But it does need to be cut, dramatically, and that requires someone with the wisdom and skill to align strategy and budgets. On these matters, Chuck Hagel is right with where the majority of American public opinion is -- and it is his Washington critics who fail to see that they are out of step.
What is Chuck Hagel's main offense to Republicans? He raised questions about invading Iraq in 2002-2003 and criticized the effort after that. That this would be a negative to some Senators only shows how outside the norm Washington has become. If Chuck Hagel is outside the mainstream of foreign policy thinking then so are others whose worldview he appears to match -- George H.W. Bush, Colin Powell, James Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard Lugar and Sam Nunn. Chuck Hagel brings a refreshing diversity of worldview -- but that worldview challenges the mindset that got us into war in Iraq in 2003 and which got us a surge into Afghanistan in 2009. But then again, it was now reelected Barack Obama who argued in 2007-2008 that it was crucial to not just end the war in Iraq, but to change the mindset that got us into the war in the first place.
Chuck Hagel brings a wealth of experience to the Pentagon. He co-founded Vanguard Cellular Phones in the 1980s, served as deputy administrator of the Veteran's Administration, headed the World USO, was manager of policy issues for Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, became one of the top expert voices on defense matters as a senator, and today serves on a range of major boards, including co-chairing the president's Intelligence Advisory Board. But perhaps crucially, Chuck Hagel's worldview comes largely from his direct combat experience as a decorated Vietnam veteran -- including being awarded two purple hearts.
The opponents of Chuck Hagel's nomination as Secretary of Defense should give serious second thought before moving forward. Sen. Hagel has shown vital evolution on lgbtq issues -- that is precisely what many lgbtq advocacy groups rightly want for the nation. On Israel, his track record is clear as a strong supporter. On Iran, he has stated what every expert knows -- that a military option, while on the table, is deeply problematic and not likely to advance the cause of eliminating Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Republican senators would benefit from considering how they will look to the American public in hearings criticizing someone who raised hard questions about invading Iraq -- which a very strong majority of the public now considers a massive mistake and would surely credit Hagel for doing the right thing at the time. They will risk looking petty in their frustration that they were wrong at the time, and he was right. Democratic senators, meanwhile, would likely not wish to be seen being overly critical of a distinguished veteran of the Vietnam War who is the choice of their party's president. Ultimately, Senator Hagel thus will likely be confirmed -- and President Obama will have succeeded in ensuring that a range of perspectives are engaged in the making of foreign policy in his cabinet and throughout the administration.
Chuck Hagel represents long-needed diversity in the context of foreign policy thinking via a return to a worldview that helped to build the foundations of American power in the 20th century, consolidate the end of the Cold War and offer essential perspectives on 21st century security challenges. He appears to be guided by a worldview that prioritizes a strong defense, but one that is guided by restraint and smart assessment of new threats. In other words, he is precisely the Secretary of Defense we need at this moment in history.
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