Politics & Policy

The Hagel Zeitgeist

Chuck Hagel is a very poor choice for the next secretary of defense, and there are signs that as much is becoming clear in Washington.

One of the reasons the administration is considering Hagel is surely the vestigial “R” that hangs next to his name in official capacities. It says something about Democrats’ self-esteem on military issues that two of the last three defense secretaries to serve under Democratic presidents have been Republicans. But Hagel has been drifting from the party for years. First in deed — he traveled to Iraq with then–presidential candidate Barack Obama in 2008, admitted to being receptive to joining the Democratic ticket, and has served on the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board since 2009. And then in word — notably his Senate endorsements of Pennsylvania Democrat Joe Sestak over Pat Toomey in 2010, and of Nebraska Democrat Bob Kerrey over Deb Fischer in November.

That Hagel’s cozying to Obama and the Democrats is calculated to earn a cabinet spot is a D.C. “open secret” on par with the location of the National Archives. But do the two make a natural pair? There is certainly a case to be made that Hagel would have made a fine defense secretary for candidate Obama. Like the senator from Illinois, the senator from Nebraska fiercely opposed the troop surge in Iraq, though, unlike the senator from Illinois, Hagel had previously supported the Iraq War. Hagel was the only Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to join then-chairman Joe Biden’s resolution against the surge, and one of just 34 senators to vote for it on the floor.

But elsewhere, Hagel’s record is at odds, at least, with Obama’s rhetoric. On Iran, the president has advocated “crippling” sanctions and insists that all options remain on the table in response to Tehran’s uranium enrichment. But on perhaps the single greatest challenge that will face the next secretary, Hagel is a dove in good standing. As a senator, he urged President Bush to engage in “unconditional” talks with the Tehran regime, and consistently voted against sanctions. Worse, he is on the record saying that military intervention in response to a nuclear Iran is “not a viable, feasible, responsible option,” and in 2010 called it an “Alice in Wonderland” proposition. As recently as September, Hagel signed on to a white paper warning that a U.S. attack on Iran could result in an “increased likelihood” of its becoming a nuclear power. His nomination would thus signal that the administration is sympathetic with this view, despite its tough talk. It will be hard for the president to convince the ayatollahs that “every option is on the table” if its top military planner has unequivocally taken one off the table.

The same is true of Hagel’s approach to the broader Middle East. Despite the unambiguity of U.S. policy on the matter, Hagel refused to sign a letter — endorsed by 88 other senators — urging the EU to officially designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, a move that would help cut off funding to the group. And though the president rhetorically pivoted toward Tel Aviv — or is it Jerusalem? — in advance of the election, Hagel has time and again actively refused to back Israel, most strikingly during the second Palestinian intifada of 2000. In a 2008 interview, Hagel defended his unpopular position on these issues by noting that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here [in Washington].” A Hagel nomination would thus signal to Israel’s friends, and its enemies, that the administration’s support is equivocal.

Besides these matters of policy, there are questions about Hagel’s ability to handle an organization like the Pentagon. His Senate office was widely known for its high turnover and low morale, and Hagel was considered by many Senate colleagues to be a poor manager of people. And while the popular incumbent defense secretary, Leon Panetta, has warned that the severe defense cuts built into the sequester would be “disastrous” to the national defense, Hagel has been quoted as saying they are necessary to “pare down” a “bloated” DoD. Coupled with his broad skepticism over the use of American power, a Hagel nomination would thus signal that the president is decentering the Pentagon, and putting it on notice.

For all these reasons, Chuck Hagel is definitively not the man who should be the next secretary of defense. And considering the problems it will create for the Obama administration should they nominate him, we trust he won’t be.


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