Defense nominee Hagel has unorthodox world views
STEVE HUNTLEY email@example.com January 7, 2013 3:40PM
President Barack Obama listens in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, where he announced that he is nominating Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, John Brennan, center, as the new CIA director; and former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, right, as the new defense secretary.(AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Updated: February 9, 2013 6:13AM
You get judged by your inner circle. Barack Obama’s nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense is stirring up a commotion because of what it might say about the foreign policy and national security thinking of the president for his second term.
Hagel’s resume points to some, shall we say, unorthodox views about the world and America’s place in it: an aloofness toward Israel, a less-than-hardline stance on the terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas, an aversion to tough sanctions against Iran, and a willingness to slash Pentagon spending to levels worrisome not just to national security hawks.
Anyone with a career in politics will say many things, some on positions that evolve over time, some that can be taken out of context, and some that were ugly but not reflective of the politician’s full world view. The latter was the case, Hagel’s defenders say, in his use of the loaded term “the Jewish lobby” to describe Israel’s strong advocates.
Hagel’s friends also reasonably argue that the former two-term Nebraska senator earned his right to be a maverick on defense thinking by virtue of his Purple-Heart service as an enlisted man in Vietnam. A willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom is needed in government. Moreover, Obama and Hagel formed a strong bond of friendship during their service in the Senate and during travels to foreign places. And however unconventional some of Hagel’s views might be, his job would be to carry out Obama policy, not formulate it.
All that may be true, but there’s no denying that Hagel’s record is setting off some alarm bells. And, if he won’t be making policy, he will be advising the president.
Hagel’s frosty attitude toward Israel recalls Obama’s cold relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the democratically elected leader of America’s strongest ally in the Middle East. “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,” Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” reflecting concern about Obama’s second-term attitude toward the Jewish state.
Hagel’s voting against sanctions on Iran for pursuing nuclear weapons on the grounds they would forestall engagement with Tehran recalls Obama’s early reluctance to hammer Iran with strong sanctions for similar reasons. The president came around to tough measures in response to prodding from Congress, Iran’s full-steam-ahead attitude on atomic weapons and worry that Israel might have to resort to a military strike.
Hagel’s perceived softness on Iran and his criticism of military intervention — including the one in Libya touted as a success by Obama — would only reaffirm the thinking in Tehran that the Obama administration, despite what it says, would not resort to military force to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
Hagel’s talk of a “bloated” Pentagon budget plays to liberal demands for steep cuts in defense spending even though the world remains a dangerous place with many potential threats to American interests.
Of course, if Hagel’s views do reflect Obama’s thinking, defeating his nomination wouldn’t change policy. The bottom line is a president has a right to pick his top advisers, so, unless something unexpected emerges in confirmation hearings, Hagel will, and should, get the job. Elections have consequences.