Editorial: Ask right questions on Hagel, Brennan

  • Article by: EDITORIAL BOARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 14, 2013 - 7:26 PM

Focus should be on finding diplomatic solutions to global crises.

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John Brennan

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Even by Beltway standards, the questions surrounding the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan are upside-down.

Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska and decorated Vietnam combat veteran, is President Obama's pick to be the nation's next secretary of defense. Brennan, currently the administration's counterterrorism advisor, has been chosen to lead the CIA.

Hagel's nomination represents the kind of bipartisan outreach the nation aches for. Tested by war and ideological battles in the Senate, he should symbolize a move from red and blue America to green -- the troops, first and foremost, but also the need to further cut the Pentagon budget.

Instead, his nomination is imperiled by many of his former GOP colleagues. And even if he is confirmed, the potential for bipartisanship on defense policy could be damaged in the process.

The case against Hagel centers mostly on past votes and statements on Israel, Iran and Islamic extremist groups in the Mideast.

He voted against designating Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, and unlike many of his peers did not pressure the European Union to designate Hezbollah a terrorist group. Hagel also voted against sanctions on Iran.

And after backing President George W. Bush's policies in the run-up to the Iraq War, he voted against the "surge." Hagel also faces criticism for calling a pro-Israel group "the Jewish lobby" and saying, "I'm a United States senator, not an Israeli senator."

(Hagel also criticized the nomination of James Hormel as an ambassador because he was "openly, aggressively gay," a statement he recently admitted was "insensitive.")

Brennan has faced far less scrutiny, despite removing himself from contention to lead the CIA four years ago because of his close ties to Bush-era interrogation policies, as well as his current association with Obama's controversial use of unmanned drones.

Senators are expected to thoroughly scrutinize nominees. But there should be a high bar for rejecting capable nominees.

Hagel did vote several times for military aid to Israel, and he sponsored legislation to isolate Hamas until it recognized Israel's sovereignty. It will be Obama, not Hagel, who will set defense policy. And in general Obama has been stalwart on Iran, Israel and extremism.

On Iran, Obama has rallied U.S. allies to impose strict economic sanctions while leaving military options on the table. On Israel, take the word of Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who said last July that "this administration under President Obama is doing in regard to our security more than anything that I can remember in the past."

On extremism, Obama not only made the gutsy call on Osama bin Laden, but the president's aggressive use of drones may be creating more enemies than it's eliminating.

Indeed, among the key questions senators should be asking is if our current strategy is best suited to avoid the abyss of yet another Mideast war, and how diplomacy might negate the need for force.

Hagel's sometimes unconventional votes at least suggest that he has witnessed war's horrors and now seeks to avoid them unless there is no other choice. That's an approach budget-busted, war-weary Americans should appreciate.

  • RHETORIC VS. REALITY


    "When [Hagel] starts talking about issues, it will be clear that there is not as much of a divergence between him and many other people's thinking as it might first seem."


    -MICHAEL O'HANLON, director of research, foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.

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