President Obama is thinking of nominating former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel as the country's next Secretary of Defense. It is an inspired choice that the President should be proud to present to Americans and to the world. It is a choice that would get immediate attention around the country and the world, a wake-up call for America's allies and potential foes alike. It would bring into the President's Cabinet "...a plainspoken man from the heartland with a big vision for where America needs to go next," as Tom Brokaw has so astutely observed.
For the military Hagel would bring, literally, a trench level understanding of how it feels to be a soldier on the front lines. To be ambushed, shot at and see fellow soldiers killed. He is a decorated veteran of Vietnam who left some blood on that vicious battlefield. Someone who instinctively understands what that one percent of Americans who have been and are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan must feel as they rotate through interminable deployments in wars without end in which there are no victories, just death and sorrow. He once wrote,
As a political leader, you can never predict how war will turn out, only that it will be worse than you thought or planned for. You better be damned sure of your reasons for getting into it... what and why and how you intend to pursue your objectives before you take a nation to war...
Isn't this the kind of leader the military needs on their side today?
The interminable Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the microscope through which the world examines America's words and deeds. Generations of terrorists have used this conflict as a narrative to justify their murders and mayhem. A fair and equitable resolution of this conflict is a vital American national interest. But a resolution will require that the next Secretary of Defense remind the world of America's unwavering commitment to the security of Israel and remind Americans of the need for the United States to simultaneously play the role of an honest broker between all parties to that conflict.
Hagel would excel in this role. Just listen to Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush, who says that throughout his career he found Hagel to be "a supporter of Israel and a man also ready to discuss very frankly with the Israelis the concerns we had about certain Israeli policies." Or for that matter to Aaron David Miller, a Mideast adviser to six Secretaries of State, who often holds up Hagel as a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values.But more than anything else Hagel would give President Obama the benefit of objective, forthright advice. Advice that would have at its core what is in the best national interest of the United States. And an unusually powerful understanding of the world America faces in the 21st Century. As he passionately told me once,
To some extent the United States is moving away from a philosophy that has been very important for America: that its success and prosperity are not mutually exclusive with the success and prosperity of the rest of the world. The more prosperous other nations and regions are , the more prosperous America can be....we need to bring the rest of the world along with us...and it is important that we not only do that but it's perceived that we are doing that..."
As I said at the beginning of my column, the President couldn't make a more inspired choice for his Secretary of Defense than Chuck Hagel.