Obama Owns Hagel, Nominated or Not

Rumor has it that President Barack Obama may not have given up his plan to nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) as Secretary of Defense after all, and that Hagel’s nomination may in fact be imminent. The fact that Hagel is even still under consideration is a signal that Obama is not worried about Hagel’s weakness on Israel, his reluctance to confront Iran, and his enthusiasm for a smaller military and weaker America.

The problems with Hagel are best summed up by a liberal Democrat who opposes him--the New Republic’s David Greenberg

Hagel later broke with Bush and the GOP on the thrust of their Middle East policy, including their continued hawkishness on the Iraq war, their hard line against Iran and Hamas, and their staunch support for Israel. Simply put, Hagel’s stated positions on Iran, Israel, and other key issues deeply worry many Republicans. (They also trouble no small number of liberal Democrats, including me.)

The main reason that President Obama wants to choose Hagel for Defense is probably the same reason he nominated Ray LaHood to be Secretary of Transportation in his first term: it is politically clever to have a Republican in charge of a policy that Republicans dislike. 

In LaHood’s case, he pushed stimulus spending on boondoggles such as high-speed rail even after Republicans and the Tea Party rallied opposition to the stimulus.

In Hagel’s case, he is being chosen to oversee massive cuts in defense spending--not just the $500 billion set to take effect with the impending sequester, but hundreds of billions of dollars in additional spending cuts already in the works. Hagel would give those cuts a bipartisan veneer--and perhaps a layer of extra protection against criticism.

Obama may also wish to strike a posture of bipartisanship after his divisive presidential campaign. There is a precedent for nominating Republicans to lead the Department of Defense--a precedent lamented by liberals who argue that Democrats need to stop acting as if they, too, believe they are weak on national security, especially after Obama won re-election in part because of the success of the Osama bin Laden raid. 

Yet Obama may also find Hagel to be an attractive choice because of his ideological beliefs. Hagel not only opposed President George W. Bush over the Iraq War (in its later stages), but also opposed fellow Republicans over Iran and over support for Israel. These are beliefs that Democrats who take national security seriously--even those who opposed the Iraq War, like Alan Dershowitz--also find troubling. Dershowitz writes:

Hagel’s appointment would send another disturbing message to the bigots of Tehran, who believe that the only people calling for military action against Iran are “the Jews.” Hagel speaks their language. He is the only mainstream American politician to talk openly about how “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people.”...Even if Hagel were to be nominated and then not confirmed by the Senate, the Iranians would get the wrong message. 

Dershowitz does not say--but surely knows--that Hagel’s appointment would also tend to validate conservative criticisms of Obama’s foreign policy, in particular the notion that underneath the platitudes and routine security cooperation Obama harbors a skepticism about Israel and a desire to appease Iran. This might very well be what Obama meant when he promised Russia’s leaders more “flexibility” after he had won re-election.

For their trouble, Hagel’s critics in both parties have been labeled “pro-Israel extremists” and likened to Rep. Todd Akin (of “legitimate rape” infamy) by Hagel’s supporters in the media. Israel’s opponents in particular have rallied to Hagel’s cause, including the noxious Daily Beast blogger Andrew Sullivan, who is prepared to overlook Hagel’s past homophobia largely because of his critical posture towards Israel.

As with the candidacy of UN Ambassador Susan Rice for Secretary of State, whiom Obama defended only to have her withdraw over the Benghazi controversy, the president’s support for Hagel may be temporary. Yet Obama had to back Rice, because he must defend his Benghazi record. 

The fact that he has stuck by the controversial Hagel for so long--reiterating his support on Sunday--is more telling, and more troubling.


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