If, as expected, President Obama does decide to nominate former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel as his secretary of defense this week, his decision will cheer progressives that have doubted Obama's willingness to stand strong in the face of Republican opposition to his appointments.
But there's a distinct downside to choosing Hagel: For the first time in decades, there will be no woman serving in any of the top four national security slots -- secretary state, CIA director, secretary of defense, or even national security adviser. That means, other than UN Ambassador Susan Rice, whose power and prestige have been diminished considerably in recent months, there will be no woman close to Obama's ear to weigh in on foreign and defense matters.
In fact, you'd have to go back to the Nixon administration to find a presidential national security team with the classic white-male demographic profile that's emerging in Obama's second term. Even Ronald Reagan -- certainly no feminist -- insisted on putting his fiery first-term UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick on the National Security Council, where she achieved unprecedented influence for a woman. And George W. Bush braved a firestorm when he nominated Condoleezza Rice for secretary of state.
In fact, for all their talk of promoting women, most progressives, it seems, are far more concerned about a prospective nominee's politics than his or her gender. Hagel, a Republican, is getting kudos from progressives for having spoken out against the Iraq invasion of 2003, and for questioning the "pro-Israeli" tilt in American foreign policy. But in fact, Hagel dutifully voted for the Iraq War -- and indeed, for every other proposed military intervention prior to his retirement in 2008. And his statements on Israel are the kind that a senator from a state like Nebraska without a large Jewish voting constituency is in a position to make. As with Obama, they give little indication of how he would actually accommodate himself to the realities of power once in office.
Moreover, it's disingenuous to depict Hagel as a Republican "maverick" when he's a hard-core conservative on just about every major social and political issue. Not only has he opposed gay rights, he has consistently opposed a woman's right to choose (earning a 94% rating from the National Right to Life Committee). Let's be blunt: side from his willingness to criticize Israel and Israeli influence on U.S. foreign policy, Hagel is a right-wing Republican.
Some progressive argue -- with considerable defensiveness, of course -- that what a secretary of defense thinks or says on these "other" issues isn't an important concern. Nonsense. In today's world, it's not so easy to separate domestic and international issues. Moreover, the standards of political accountability and good governance that we pressure other governments to follow include issues relating to the treatment of gays, minorities, and women and the achievement of full social equality.
Obama also has other options -- and they're good ones. He could easily choose a progressive Democratic woman for the Defense slot -- for example, former undersecretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy. Flournoy was an assistant secretary of defense under Bill Clinton and is no slouch on defense issues. After leaving the Clinton administration, she co-founded the Center for a New America Security, and quickly emerged as a policy wonk with sufficient gravitas to earn the respect of the Democratic establishment, and indeed, despite having strongly backed Hillary Clinton for president, to join Obama's team.
Some people have surmised that Flournoy, who helped oversee the draw-down of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan is more conservative than Hagel. Not really. Examine her writings. Like Hagel, she's an advocate of "realism" and restraint in foreign policy; she quietly opposed the Libya intervention. She's also pushed for a faster withdrawal from Afghanistan than Obama has. She's Hagel without the war record -- or the verbal testosterone.
Flournoy's been hailed as a powerful mentor and inspiration to a new generation of women emerging inside the corridors of power at the Pentagon. She's only 51, is not a war veteran, and does not the fit the mold of the outspoken or hard-charging cabinet secretary. Warren Moore, a Republican adviser who served in the first Bush administration, told me that some top defense people worry that Flournoy is "too junior" and "may not be a commanding enough figure to stand up to the likes of Putin."
But, of course, much the same was once said about Bill Clinton's former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Women of quiet strength, it seems, are still being perceived as not quite up to the "tough" and "manly" business of national defense. And yet, here's the irony: some of the same staunch conservatives that oppose Hagel have said they're prepared to support Flournoy instead.
You'd think that Obama's female supporters might have something to say about his decision to nominate a man at Defense who quite literally symbolizes the Republican "war on women." There hasn't been a peep, though. Apparently, they'd rather rush to defend Hillary Clinton, who's leaving office in two weeks, than weigh in on potentially the most consequential presidential appointment since Obama named Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court.
Sometimes you have to wonder: What are American feminists thinking?