I’m not a fan of Chuck Hagel. I am, however, partial to the theory that opposition to Hagel has the potential to backfire, as Hagel’s partisan affiliation suggests to relatively disengaged voters — engaged enough to follow the news, not engaged enough to go beyond party labels as a heuristic device for interpreting the political landscape — that Republican opposition to his nomination is either opportunistic or excessively ideological. Moreover, I tend to think that presidents should be given a wide berth in making appointments of this kind. The president is pursuing a deliberate strategy of broadening the Democratic tent, and deepening its emerging advantage on national security issues. As a dovish former senator from a Great Plains state, and as a military veteran with culturally conservative convictions, Hagel represents a symbolic departure, which might appeal to socially moderate former Republicans who see the contemporary GOP as too extreme or, in some cases, too invested in the U.S. partnership with Israel.
As Sean Trende’s The Lost Majority reminds us, however, broadening a political tent in one direction risks shrinking it in another. Many devoted Democrats, for example, are very committed to the U.S. partnership with Israel, including many of the party’s most prominent elected officials, policy thinkers, and donors. More broadly, a party that appeals to culturally conservative Nebraskans might have somewhat less appeal to socially liberal city-dwellers, though my sense is that this possibility is not a very serious one. It is more likely that Hagel will soften or abandon what remains of his cultural conservatism, which isn’t particularly relevant regardless at the Pentagon.
Kerry and Hagel, a generation older than Obama, are both Vietnam veterans who were, by their own admission, haunted by that experience; both are known for their prudence and judiciousness in the use of force (Hagel even came out against Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan, while Kerry supported it). Both will likely stand fully with Obama’s scaling-down of American military commitments abroad, and with his extreme stringency in applying U.S. military power in new crisis spots such as Libya and Syria. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, Clinton’s former policy-planning chief, told me last summer, Obama knows the American public is “heartily tired” of the “freedom agenda” approach to foreign policy that extended from Ronald Reagan through the second Bush administration, with Bill Clinton an occasional reluctant participant in humanitarian situations like Bosnia and Kosovo. “This is a guy who’s not going to waste our money and risk the lives of American soldiers unless he absolutely has to,” she said. Kerry and Hagel are acutely aware of this as well; both hew closely to Powell Doctrine thinking about restraint in the use of hard power; both will probably counsel extreme caution in most trouble spots, with a wild-card possibility of bold new action in other areas, for example Mideast peacemaking.
And as Ron Fournier of National Journal observes, the similarities don’t end at the level of doctrine:
By nominating Chuck Hagel to be his Defense secretary, President Obama is putting forward an aloof contrarian who doesn’t suffer fools–a striving politician who considers himself above politics. Hagel’s intellectual arrogance angers party colleagues, raising suspicions about what he really stands for, as well as doubts about whether he’s a team player.
In other words, Obama has picked a man very much like himself. Hagel is Obama in a GOP jersey.
Fournier also points to another factor that I suspect to be of particular interest to the president:
As a Republican maverick with little goodwill inside the GOP caucus, nominating Hagel is a stiff finger in the eye of Obama’s intractable rivals.
I object to Hagel primarily because I see him as a faithful adherent to President Obama’s approach to foreign and defense policy and I disagree with what I take to be the president’s approach. Like Frederick Kagan and Kimberly Kagan, for example, I believe that the U.S. should have made more of an effort to retain a sizable military presence in Iraq. And though I support cuts to some defense expenditures, e.g., I favor an overhaul of personnel policies to more effectively deploy human capital and resources across the military, per Tim Kane’s excellent Bleeding Talent, which recently received a favorable review in the New York Times. Yet I also support the recapitalization of the armed forces, and I believe that defense expenditures should have been a central part of fiscal stimulus efforts. It is nevertheless reasonable that the president will choose people who embrace his worldview, which is to say that Hagel is the kind of bitter pill conservatives have to swallow in the wake of the November election defeat. The only real way to stop Hagel is if prominent Senate Democrats, like Chuck Schumer, get in his way.