The Best Possible Case for Chuck Hagel

As former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) prepares for his confirmation hearing for the job of Secretary of Defense on Thursday, it is important to draw some conclusions from the contentious debate of the past several weeks. We have already considered much of the case against Hagel, but perhaps it is time to consider the case for Hagel, as embraced by his most devoted defenders in the left-wing policy establishment and the media.

He has the experience for the job. Hagel knows a great deal about defense issues, even though his portfolio in the Senate was foreign affairs, not armed services. He will bring insights from his military experience to his task, even though those insights led Hagel to oppose the U.S. surge in Iraq and to predict its eventual failure--incorrectly.

He will protect our defenses. Hagel knows well the lesson of dramatic post-Cold War defense cuts, and once warned that new cuts could leave America vulnerable to new threats--even though, more recently, he has enthusiastically backed new cuts to defense and suggested that some defense roles would best be handled by the State Department.

He is a true friend of Israel. Hagel believes Israel has the right to exist, even if he is ignorant of Israel’s history and thinks the Israeli-Arab conflict is the “core” of all conflict in the Middle East. He believes in Israel’s right to self-defense, even though he opposed Israel’s war of self-defense against Hezbollah in 2006, calling it “disproportionate” and an “overreaction.” He voted for foreign aid for Israel, even it he declined to join his colleagues in letters of support for Israel. True friends of Israel--so we are told--are those who, like Hagel, will pressure Israel to do what it ought to know is in its own interest.

He is tough on terror. Hagel believes in taking the fight to terror groups, even though he has urged the U.S. to open talks with Hamas, a terror group that is committed to Israel’s destruction and hates America as well. He does consider Iranian-backed Hezbollah a terrorist group, even though he was one of the few Senators to refuse to sign a letter to the European Union asking that it formally designate Hezbollah as such.

He is committed to preventing a nuclear Iran. Though he long opposed unilateral sanctions against Iran, and opposed military action if necessary, Hagel is determined to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Hagel has endorsed President Barack Obama’s pleasant, if unsuccessful, diplomatic approach to Iran, commending the president for forging relationships with Iran despite the unfortunate crackdown of 2009.

He favors a strong nuclear deterrent. Hagel has made it clear that he now believes the U.S. must maintain its nuclear arsenal as a deterrent against other nuclear threats, even though he once joined the “Global Zero” initiative to call for total disarmament and was part of a commission recommending radical cuts to American nuclear capabilities. 

Hagel is an authoritative voice on foreign affairs. He has argued passionately for multilateral diplomacy as an alternative to war, even though he urged then-President Clinton to use ground troops in Kosovo in 1999--a mission that was not sanctioned by the United Nations. He understands the importance of engaging rogue regimes--even though he predicted in 2009 that Israel’s next major peace treaty would be with Syria.

His views on gays and Jews have evolved. Hagel has enlightened views on LGBT issues, though he once opposed gay appointees, gay marriage, and openly gay service in the military. Likewise, he has patched relations with the Jewish community over his “Jewish lobby” epithet in 2006, making clear that he recognizes that he chose his words poorly. He should have said “single issue benefits of certain groups,” which is how he referred to the so-called “lobby” in a speech to the radical J Street organization in 2009.

While it is true that Hagel has revised some of his views recently, that shows his openness to new ideas rather than naked opportunism, as some have suggested. Diverse groups--Iranian reformists, Al-Jazeera journalists, and domestic critics of Israel--are excited about Hagel, which is proof enough of his potential. 

Above all, Hagel is the President's pick, and therefore qualified. The fact that he irritates "neoconservatives" is an added bonus.


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