01/14/2013 06:48 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Powell Positions the Debate Over Chuck Hagel

There's always more than one reason to make a major appointment. And one of the most important reasons for President Barack Obama to name former Senator Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defense is to point up the problems of the current version of the Republican Party.

General Colin Powell appeared Sunday on Meet the Press to talk up former Senator Chuck Hagel's appointment to be the next secretary of defense. Powell delivered a powerful performance on Hagel's behalf, in the process delivering a pointed indictment of a Republican Party seized by Tea Party radicalism on the domestic front and neoconservative radicalism on the geopolitical front.

Last week, discussing why Obama chose the Hagel battle rather than the Susan Rice battle, I suggested that picking a fight over Hagel allows Obama to emphasize how radically conservative the Republican Party has become. For in the process the battle demonstrates how much support Hagel, and Obama himself, is garnering from moderate Republicans who increasingly find themselves forced out of their erstwhile party. Obama loves to position himself as a post-partisan, and few things make that easier than ramping up the contrast with radically conservative Republicans.

Neither Hagel nor Obama could have asked for a better witness on their behalf than Powell. Not unless Dwight Eisenhower himself got hold of a time machine.

In an expansive discussion on Sunday's Meet the Press, General Colin Powell enthusiastically promoted former Senator Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense and excoriated a radical conservative Republican Party.

Powell, who ran the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War victory of the Bush I administration and was secretary of state during the Bush II administration, had some choice comments to make about Hagel, Israel, reflexive interventionism, and the Republican Party, of which he still considers himself a member.

On Hagel: "It might be useful just to stand back and take a look at this man overall. A young man who volunteered to go to Vietnam. He was wounded twice. He came back from Vietnam, he went to school under the G.I. Bill. He supported President Reagan in his run for office, and received appointment as deputy director of the Veterans Administration.

"To show you the kinda courage this guy has, he quit after one year because he felt the Veterans Administration was not doing a good job for veterans. He knows what war is, and he will fight a war if it's necessary. But he's a guy who will do it with great deliberation and care. He is a fellow who speaks his mind. He sometimes gets in trouble with those who thinks he should not speak his mind, but he says what he believes and he sticks with it."

Declaring Hagel to "superbly qualified" as the next secretary of defense, a staunch advocate for those in uniform, Powell implicitly contrasted Hagel with neoconservatives as he pointedly declared: "This is a guy who would be very careful about putting their lives at risk because he put his life at risk."

On Hagel and Israel: Powell called Hagel a "very, very strong supporter of Israel. But that doesn't mean you have to agree with every single position that the Israeli government takes."

On the Republican Party: "There's a dark vein of intolerance in some parts of the party. What do I mean by that? What I mean by that is they still sort of look down on minorities. How can I evidence that?

"When I see a former governor (that would be Sarah Palin, weighing in on the Benghazi disaster) say that the president is 'shuckin' and jivin'.' That's a racial era slave term."

In addition to criticizing Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee, for her racial comments on Obama, Powell also took aim at his Bush I administration colleague, former White House chief of staff and New Hampshire Governor John Sununu.

"He didn't say he was slow," Powell said of Sununu's comments on Obama after his lackluster first debate against Mitt Romney, "he was tired, he didn't do well; he said he was 'lazy.' Now, it may not mean anything to most Americans, but to those of us who are African Americans, the second word is 'shiftless,' and then there's a third word that goes along with it."

Powell also ripped the "birther movement" that has been so influential in Republican politics as part of the Manchurian Candidate fantasy around Obama.

"The whole birther movement: Why do senior Republican leaders tolerate this kind of discussion within the party?" Powell asked. "I think the party has to take a look at itself."

There's still quite a bit of drama to play out over Hagel.

Will his old compadre John McCain, who was not nearly so vastly expansive in his advocacy of interventionism in his 2000 presidential campaign, which I supported, as he later became after 9/11, really vote against Hagel?

Will New York Senator Chuck Schumer, a key vote on the Democratic side, decide to side with his president in declaring Hagel sufficiently supportive of Israel, or will he decide that a U.S. defense secretary has to go down with another government's policy checklist?

Will a freshly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who will probably have an even more conservative coalition underlying his government after next week's election, resume his pro-Romney campaign habit of trying to stir up trouble for Obama, this time on the Hagel appointment?

Bearing in mind that Hagel is decidedly not Dennis Kucinich, how vague will his public comments on Iran's nuclear program become as he smooths the way for his own confirmation?

Critical as all these questions may be, in the end they may be dwarfed by others more directly dealing with core American interests.

I believe Hagel will be confirmed by the Senate. It will then be his charge to manage the ending of the Afghan War, as part of the process of executing the big geopolitical pivot -- from over-engagement with the Islamic world of the Middle East and Central to increased engagement with the rising Asia-Pacific region -- which I write about on a regular basis. You can see an archive of my Pivot-related pieces here.

In that regard, Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai met at length last Friday and agreed to speed up the transition away from reliance on U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. What had been expected to be the end of U.S. combat operations this coming summer now occurs in the spring.

More announcements are due on a residual force, if any, after 2014, and any new status of forces agreement (under which U.S. troops would be free from prosecution and there is agreement about custody of prisoners).

Iraq, now closely aligned with Iran, refused a status of forces agreement with the U.S., so there is no residual force in what Bill Kristol and other neoconservative ideologues saw as a central piece in "the New American Century" after the better part of a decade of war in Iraq.

What will remain in Afghanistan? How long ago did we achieve what we actually needed to achieve there? And how long will it take to extricate ourselves from the snares of the Middle East and Central Asia?

Just a few of the questions for the next secretary of defense.

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