01/10/2013 12:11 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2013

Invitation to a Beheading: Chuck Hagel's Confirmation Hearings

When the only thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on is that Chuck Hagel should not be the next secretary of defense, the United States of America is in for it. In a milieu of bimonthly catfights over whether and how the government should pay its bills, mass shootings veering towards the ritualistic, and increasingly bizarre and destructive weather events, an astonishing bipartisan coalition of senators has kicked into high gear to thwart the great threat to America's strength and security that is the Purple Heart-bedecked Chuck Hagel.

This opposition is both perplexing and predictable. Perplexing because of Hagel's clear intelligence, experience, and independence, and predictable because its roots are in the same inanities and influences that have dumbed down our discourse and made it difficult for legislators to compromise in the interest of progress. Most disappointing is the degree to which the opposition is largely punitive rather than heartfelt. When it comes to the substance of the work the next secretary of defense will be tasked with, like whittling our military down to cyber-size, many of Hagel's opponents seem uninitiated at best. Vying to assuage their most vocal donors, they will forget about the Pentagon the minute Hagel is confirmed or rejected. They are beholden to special interest groups, and as such, we are all beholden to hearing them roar.

The most vociferous objections to Hagel's nomination take three forms: Those on the far left irate at one comment he made fourteen years ago about a gay ambassadorial nominee; those who think he isn't a fervent enough "friend of Israel"; and those afraid that Hagel would allow some vast store of U.S. omnipotence, military and otherwise, to expire. It is not that these objections don't lend themselves to legitimate questions in Hagel's confirmation hearings, it is that they are unworthy instigators of the hysteria that has descended upon the senatorial cabal now clamoring for blood.

It was, of course, wrong for Hagel to call ambassadorial nominee James Hormel "aggressively gay" in 1998. He has since apologized for the remark, and his apology has been accepted by no less than the Human Rights Campaign, and by Hormel himself. Making more hay over his comment can only serve to further the trend in American public life that anything you say can and will be used against you. This paranoia has led to an environment in which the only choices seemingly available to those in public life are to be an irate blowhard or a mellifluent milquetoast, incapable of seeing multiple sides of an issue and forming a definitive opinion anyway. These gotcha-games have nothing to do with the substance of legislation and advocacy, and are often not even indicative of the subject's character.

"Chuck Hagel, if confirmed to be secretary of defense, would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense towards the state of Israel in our nation's history," Senator Lindsay Graham thundered on CNN last weekend. (Considering that the state of Israel has only existed for the last 27 percent of the United States' history, "our nation's history" was a rather bellicose metric for speculation.) Graham is part of the second anti-Hagel bloc -- what we might term the Likud lobby. AIPAC and other mainstream pro-Israel groups have said they will not oppose Hagel's nomination, but this is not good enough for some who believe that supporting Israel means writing a blank check to Benjamin Netanyahu and his gang in the Knesset. This is as bogus a parallel as equating being a "friend of the United States" with supporting every policy of President Obama's. Hagel has asked tough questions of Israel's more expansionary and militaristic adventures, and it seems impossible for some of those now opposing his nomination to imagine that he might be asking these questions out of a desire to help find a sustainable solution to the violence perennially nipping at Israel's borders and firing at its heartland. Opposition to Hagel on the premise that he is not a staunch enough "friend of Israel" should be called what it is -- opposition to letting one political party inside Israel do whatever it wants, no matter the peril in which it places any hope of lasting peace.

Finally, many Republicans are upset that Hagel bucked his party's orthodoxy to oppose the Iraq war, has advocated for engagement with Hamas and Hezbollah, and has opposed sanctions and military strikes on Iran. Hagel deserves to be questioned on these positions in his confirmation hearings, and asked if and how contemporary conditions have changed his perspectives. But many critics of these points have not howled over John Kerry's nomination to be secretary of state, despite Kerry having held many of the same positions in the past -- although of course much of this is because Kerry's nomination gives Scott Brown a chance to win back the Senate seat he lost to Elizabeth Warren in November.

Cabinet nominations are not Supreme Court nominations, and Hagel's chief task will be implementing President Obama's policies rather than crafting his own. As such, the essential quality his job will demand, especially in such an unwieldy behemoth as the Pentagon, is not a particular worldview, but leadership. Hagel's willingness to take a stand for what he believes, even if it is unpopular and politically inexpedient, is the sort of leadership in foreign policy this millennium could have used a bit more of. Indeed, it seems like Republicans might be clamoring for a contrarian, given that Hagel's boss would be President Obama.

The fight over Hagel's nomination is a tawdry distraction from our real challenges, like sustainably paying for Medicare and safeguarding against cyberattacks that could debilitate our grids. Truly understanding these problems often requires a technical knowledge beyond most Americans' pay grades (including mine) and making progress towards solving them will require painful compromise. But Israel, Iran, and gay rights are being evoked here as hot button issues that can be used to whip constituents up into a frenzy -- politics before policy, as usual. It is a spectacle unworthy of Chuck Hagel, the post to which he has been nominated, and the scope of the real problems facing this country. But while Rome burns, we seem content to bicker.