President Barack Obama announced today that he has nominated his top counterterrorism adviser John Brennan as the next CIA director and former Republican senator from Nebraska Chuck Hagel for the position of Secretary of Defense, ignoring weeks of neoconservative criticism of Hagel’s record.
“Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve,” Obama said in the East Room of the White House during the announcement. “He is a champion of our troops, and our values, and our military families.” Outgoing Secretary Leon Panetta said that Hagel is “a patriot, a decorated combat veteran…and I believe his experience and judgment makes him an excellent choice for Secretary of Defense.”
In taking over at the Pentagon from Secretary Panetta, Hagel is tasked with implementing a time of change that began in Obama’s first term. Hagel — who served in the Senate from 1997 to 2009 — was an early supporter of the Iraq War, but quickly became an extremely vocal thorn in the side of the Bush administration as an outspoken critic of the war’s prosecution. That war has now ended under President Obama, with the war in Afghanistan due to come to a close during Hagel’s service in Obama’s Cabinet.
Despite his credentials, and the strong likelihood that he will be confirmed, the path to the Pentagon will be one littered with false attacks and cheap shots that ignore the nuance of Hagel’s past statements. The smear machine has been gearing up for weeks as President Obama weighed his final decision and the White House sent out trial balloons. In response, an avalanche of bipartisan and high-level support has come out in defense of Hagel’s strong record, a few selections of which are listed here:
First Enlisted Veteran As Secretary of Defense
Hagel would be a new voice to the halls of the Pentagon, as the first Defense chief who served in Vietnam as an enlisted soldier, a point of view that has affected his further interactions with the military. Hagel also is the first Secretary who only served as an enlisted soldier opposed to being an officer. Originally assigned to be sent to Europe, Hagel instead requested to be sent to serve with his compatriots in Vietnam.
Improved Veterans Administration/USO
Once he took off the uniform, Hagel continued to support those who came after him in defense of the country, serving as Deputy Administrator of what was then the Veterans Administration. Faced during his tenure with criticism for his support of the design for the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, Hagel stood firm in support of what is now now one of the most famous structures in Washington.
Hagel also served as the President and CEO of the USO from 1987 until 1990. As the Atlantic’s S.C. Clemons has noted, in that position Hagel not only brought the budget back to operating levels, he provided relief to U.S. soldiers serving around the world, including those based in Israel.
Foreign Policy Leadership
Should Hagel be confirmed, he would also bring years of experience from his time on the Senate’s Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees, including time spent traveling with a young Senator to Iraq and other foreign locales to give him the lay of the land. That tie to now-President Obama will serve Hagel well as he helps steer the Pentagon through a time of looming budget cuts and strategic shifts. Since leaving the Senate, Hagel has kept himself in position to weigh in on and effect foreign policy. He currently acts as Chairman of the Atlantic Council, promoting ties between the U.S. and Europe. He also serves as co-chair of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board, which provides the President with an independent view of the activities and effectiveness of the intelligence community.
The first charge in most attacks against Hagel is that he is somehow less committed to the defense of Israel than he should be — or worse, that he’s actually anti-Semitic. As has been documented at this blog and in numerous other places, Hagel’s actual record has been one in support of Israel while maintaining a nuanced and balanced view of the region rather than one of dogmatic belief. As pointed out by the Jewish organization J Street:
In his book, Hagel wrote: “[a]t its core, there will be a special and historic bond with Israel exemplified by our continued commitment to Israel’s defense.” Further, “[a] comprehensive solution should not include any compromise regarding Israel’s Jewish identity, which must be assured. The Israel people must be free to live in peace and security.”
Even more important to many knocking Hagel is their belief that he would be unwilling to lead the nation to war with Iran and would somehow refuse to do so should the President make such a decision. The idea that Hagel is out of the mainstream on Iran is an absurdity. In a 2006 speech, Hagel outlined his view on U.S.-Iranian relations, making clear that while Iran’s behavior in the region is not to be applauded, the prospects of war should give America pause. Hagel has also stated in an op-ed signed by many other foreign policy luminaries that they take a stance “fully consistent with the policy of presidents for more than a decade of keeping all options on the table, including the use of military force, thereby increasing pressure on Iran while working toward a political solution.”
Throughout his time in the Senate, Hagel showed a bipartisan and moderate streak on foreign policy that managed to thread the line between staying in the mainstream on most issues and bucking conventional wisdom when necessary. Hagel co-sponsored the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act of 2006, which declared it U.S. policy to oppose organizations “that support terrorism and violently reject a two-state solution to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Hagel also voted in favor of over $38 billion worth of aid to Israel during his two terms in the Senate, hardly the action of someone with a loathing of the state.
He also voted in favor of several rounds of targeted sanctions against Iran including packages in 1998, 2000, and 2006. Hagel also proved his commitment to lowering the proliferation of nuclear material by co-sponsoring a bill called the “Nuclear Weapons Threat Reduction Act of 2007” with then-Senator Obama.
Hagel further showed his continuing desire to aid those in uniform in one of his last votes in the Senate, by voting in favor of the Post 9/11 GI Bill, the original version of which he also co-authored with fellow Vietnam veteran Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA). When he departed the Senate in 2008, the praise from his colleagues came from both sides of the aisle.
In all, Hagel should be an uncontroversial choice to head the Pentagon. As a veteran, a former Senator, an established thinker on foreign policy, and strong supporter of the President, Hagel has all the markings of a strong Secretary of Defense. The coming fight over his confirmation will expose not the flaws in Hagel’s record, but instead those in the thinking of his detractors.