President Barack Obama listens in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, where he announced that he's nominating former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, right, as the new defense secretary.
It's good news that President Obama is nominating Chuck Hagel as his secretary of defense, despite the frantic campaign against Hagel by certain Republicans.
I don't think that Obama chose Hagel because of the opposition. It's generally not his style to pick a fight for its own sake (see Rice, Susan). He's an issues man, and he faces many fights on other pressing matters. If he thought that someone less controversial could do the job at the Pentagon, he'd have gone with that person in a flash (see Kerry, John).
The real question is what kind of job Obama wants his next secretary of defense to do. I have no inside knowledge, but judging from some of the president's actions and remarks on matters of national defense, Hagel seems to be the right choice. And that's what disturbs the most outspoken Hagel-resisters.
These resisters have four main concerns. They fear that Hagel will cut the military budget. They fear that he'll roll over if Iran builds a nuclear weapon. They fear that he's too reluctant to use military force generally. And they fear he doesn't much like Israel; the extremists on this point claim he's anti-Semitic.
Let's take these points one by one.
It is true that Hagel once said the defense budget was "bloated." Does anyone doubt this? Even if sequestration is avoided, the military services are coming in for some cuts, maybe drastic ones. That always happens after a war, with good reason; the money spent on those wars is no longer needed.
The baseline military budget (excluding the costs of the wars) amounts to $525 billion. Adjusting for inflation, that's only 7 percent less than what President Ronald Reagan spent on defense at the peak of the Cold War -- when massive Soviet tank armies were poised on the German border and a nuclear-arms race was spiraling out of control. It's hard to argue that we need more money for defense than we spent back then.
It's also true that Hagel isn't keen on going to war with Iran. The same is true of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and most of the American people. Second, ultimately, the point is irrelevant. The president makes these sorts of decisions. Obama has said that he will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. Some Republicans say they don't believe him and that by picking Hagel -- who would have a loud say in deliberations on the issue -- the president is confirming their worst suspicions.
First, they have no evidence for this claim. Second, maybe they're right; but does the Senate's role of "advise and consent" include an insistence that the secretary of defense favor a policy that they believe the president opposes?
Are they sure that Michele Flournoy -- the former undersecretary of defense who had also been under consideration for the top job -- would take a harder line? And are they really sure what Hagel's position is?
For the past year, he has been cochairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, where he won plaudits from veteran intelligence officials for his probity and objectivity. One of these officials told me that, during discussions of intelligence on Iran's nuclear program, Hagel put no political spin on the issue.
Again, the Republicans' real problem on Iran is with Obama -- or, rather, with what they think Obama stands for. In the wake of the president's incontestable re-election, Hagel serves as a stand-in.
On the issue of military force, Hagel is more dovish than many Republicans and perhaps some Democrats. He opposed the Iraq war, but so did Obama (then an Illinois state senator), and, as is clearer now than ever, they were right. More disturbing to some conservatives, he opposed President George W. Bush's 2007 troop surge in Iraq. The surge and its accompanying shift in strategy did help significantly tamp down the violence in Iraq and allowed, five years later, for a dignified U.S. exit. In that sense, it "worked."
But it only bought time for the Iraqi political factions to settle their differences. (That's all that Gen. David Petraeus, the strategy's architect, ever claimed it could do.) And now it's clear that the factions didn't want to settle their differences. Ethnic clashes have persisted, and the issues are no closer to settlement.
Therefore, was Hagel so wrong? And, for what it's worth, Obama, now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time opposed the surge, too. Are Hagel's critics denouncing any of them? Again, they're really going after Obama.
But the bugaboo issue -- the third rail when it comes to foreign policy -- is Israel. As a senator, Hagel once complained to a reporter that "the Jewish lobby" intimidates many lawmakers on Capitol Hill. And he once intoned that he was a senator from Nebraska, not a senator from Israel. These may have been impolitic remarks, but they weren't false -- either in strict substance or in spirit.
No one could deny that AIPAC has an overpowering influence on many lawmakers. Hagel's sin, in the eyes of some, was to call it the "Jewish lobby" instead of the "Israel lobby." If this is a sin, AIPAC and its allies have brought it on themselves. For decades, they have thundered that criticism of Israel is thinly disguised anti-Semitism.
Yet they cry "anti-Semitism" again when someone inverts the equation (which is what the phrase in question amounts to: If anti-Israel equals anti-Jewish, then pro-Israel equals pro-Jewish). As for saying that he's a senator from Nebraska, not Israel: Had he or any other senator said this about any other country ("I'm not a senator from France ... England ... Canada" or wherever), no one would have batted an eye. To accuse him of anti-Semitism on these grounds is to reveal a staggeringly deep paranoia.
An open letter from nine former U.S. ambassadors, five of them ex-ambassadors to Israel, strongly endorses Hagel and rejects as ludicrous the charge that he's anti-Semitic (as does the columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, who's perceptive on such matters). Again, the complaints about Hagel are proxy-complaints about Obama, who is denounced by these critics as soft on Israel, even though the recently retired Israeli defense minister said that Obama has done more for Israeli security than any U.S. president in recent memory.
Let's look at the real issues. Hagel is a former two-term Republican senator. He won two Purple Hearts as an infantry squad leader in Vietnam. No one could possibly dispute his devotion to the country, its security or its armed forces. But he is a pragmatist, and there may be the rub. What Republicans seem to fear most is that by appointing Hagel as secretary of defense, Obama can claim a false bipartisanship in his national-security team. In fact, these critics say Hagel does not reflect the values or positions of the Republican Party; his presence in Cabinet meetings would not constitute real bipartisanship.
If that is true, the real problem is with the present-day Republican Party. It's often said that today's GOP wouldn't nominate Reagan for president. By the same token, much of its leadership would rail against Robert Gates for secretary of defense.
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Fred Kaplan is author of "The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War."
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