If Chuck Hagel is nominated by President Barack Obama to serve as secretary of defense, there will be at least three compelling arguments in his favor. He served with distinction in the military and would — like secretary of state nominee John Kerry — bring a veteran’s perspective to his post. He has adopted and articulated a sane perspective on the grave foreign policy blunders whose consequences still haunt the nation, including the Iraq and Vietnam wars. And as we have learned ever since his nomination was first floated, he has made all the right (and right-wing) enemies.
Hagel is a former Republican senator from Nebraska, which means that his voting record was mostly conservative and that he has probably said many things that might offend liberal Democrats. (Already he has felt obliged to apologize for a nasty remark he once made in reaction to President Bill Clinton’s nomination of James Hormel as the first openly gay U.S. ambassador.) He is a devout Catholic and an opponent of abortion rights, and he has received poor ratings in the past from the NAACP, the ACLU and other liberal organizations.
But as a potential nominee for secretary of defense, Hagel is coming under far heavier fire so far from the right — where he is being widely smeared as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic — than from the left. The neoconservatives and their allies on the religious right cannot forgive Hagel for turning against the Iraq war and the Bush administration — a stance that reflected his opposition to reckless warfare and his adoption of a realistic internationalism. They dislike Hagel as well for his refusal to endorse Israel’s expansion of West Bank settlements and other actions that undermine the Mideast peace process; for his reluctance to promote war with Iran; and for his critical eye on Pentagon misspending and waste.
In reality, those are all valid reasons to support him. It is hard to believe that the opinions of the same people who assured us that Iraq would be a free and easy “cakewalk” are today accorded any attention whatsoever, thousands of lives and trillions of dollars later.
Yet it is equally important to emphasize that the charge of anti-Semitism against Hagel is groundless and shames those who have uttered this canard. Among those who have forthrightly denounced it are Jon Soltz, a Jewish army veteran who served two tours in Iraq and now heads Vote Vets, and Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic magazine blogger on Mideast affairs who once served in the Israel Defense Forces. (They are unlike many of Hagel’s critics, who might fairly be characterized as “chickenhawks.”)
In a letter to the 200,000-plus members of Vote Vets, many of whom are, like him, Democratic-leaning Iraq and Afghan war veterans, Soltz writes: “Chuck Hagel, as a Vietnam veteran, would put troops first. He has a record of challenging neocon dreams of preemptive use of force — and winning that debate. He has a record of challenging wasteful Pentagon spending, taking on the military-industrial complex, to ensure our defense dollars are responsibly spent on equipment we actually need. ... So please, take a stand against this swiftboating of a man who has only served America with honor.
“Goldberg favors Hagel’s appointment precisely because he believes the Nebraskan, who now teaches at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, would push back against Israeli policies that endanger the future of the Jewish state: I think Israel is heading down a dangerous path, toward its own eventual dissolution, because it refuses to contemplate even unilateral half-measures that could lay the groundwork for a Palestinian state ... I’ve spoken to Chuck Hagel in the past. He is not a hater of Israel. On the other hand, he, like Bob Gates, the former secretary of defense, might be able to look (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) in the eye and demand an explanation for the Israeli government’s actions on the West Bank.”
The “swiftboating” of Hagel is being mobilized by the likes of William Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor, who managed to avoid service in Vietnam but still believes that bloody tragedy was a great idea. Kristol and his ilk have been so wrong about every policy issue over the past four decades that their angry opposition to Hagel is a sterling endorsement of him.
Still, there may be valid reasons to oppose his candidacy, based on his temperament, experience or record. Before confirmation he should be questioned closely on his commitment to fair treatment of LGBT personnel and on any substantive issues, such as reproductive rights, where administration policy may conflict with his personal beliefs. He may run into problems among his former Republican Senate colleagues, not all of whom admire him, but their opinions should carry little weight.
Indeed, their opposition too should serve to strengthen the case for Hagel’s confirmation. He has served his country with courage and principle over many years in public service, which is far more than can be said for most of his adversaries.