Hagel Is The Wrong Choice

12.14.12 4:30 PM ET

Reporters are predicting that President Barack Obama will nominate former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as the next Secretary of Defense. It is a capital idea. There are few top contenders for the post whose appointment would so highlight the hypocrisy, partisanship, and inconstancy of the President and his slavish Washington supporters regarding foreign policy.

Since Obama’s meteoric rise, many have wondered just what his take is on foreign policy. As a leading George W. Bush critic, as a candidate who sought negotiations with Ahmadinejad’s Iran—and seemed convinced he could charm the mullahs—and as a president dazzled by the Arab Spring, Obama has frequently seemed rooted in the Robert Taft-George McGovern school, one part isolationist, one part quixotic, fearing foreign entanglements, avoiding war, almost at all costs. This Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. But a second, more pragmatic Obama has also been on display, more Henry Kissinger-realist than McGovernik-romantic. This Obama kept Guantanamo Bay open, killed terrorists via drone warfare, approved the Afghanistan war surge, and hunted down Osama Bin Laden. This Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, aware that his foreign policy record was thin—and then lectured pacifist, cosmopolitan Europe, saying: “There will be times when nations—acting individually or in concert—will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified.”

The question of where Obama stands regarding Israel has often pivoted on this deeper question of which Obama shows up when doing foreign policy. His conjuring up of an American-Muslim heritage in Cairo, his dithering before supporting Iran’s Green Revolution, his historically sloppy comparisons between Palestinians and African-Americans, and his occasional “tough-love” approach to Israel, all expressed his inner McGovern—revealing how a position that appears lovely and idealistic often becomes morally myopic. But supporting Israel militarily, endorsing Israel’s defensive war against Hamas missiles, and backing Israel in the U.N., have all expressed his inner Kissinger—sprinkled with a dash of nobility and idealism worthy of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

During his reelection campaign, Obama’s Jewish supporters overshot. Ignoring the mixed messages, they deemed Obama Israel’s best friend, ever—deploying OMG schoolgirl BFF talk to cover a complex, nuanced, and frequently fickle position. (Obama’s Jewish critics also overshot in calling him, equally inaccurately, “anti-Israel.”)

If Barack Obama entrusts the Department of Defense—not even the State Department but the Pentagon itself—to Chuck Hagel, he will be embracing his morally neutered, European, Nobel Prize-winning self. He will be indulging his anti-Bush animus, continuing his 2008 campaign by picking a Bush-bashing Republican. He will be nominating a candidate who sees moral equivalence where he should see moral clarity, who has an exaggerated faith in negotiating with totalitarians who act in bad faith (like the Iranian mullahs and Hamas terrorists), who comes out with callow, I’m-okay-you’re-okay amoral Kumbaya assessments such as claiming, during the intifada, shortly after 9/11: “We will need a wider lens to grasp the complex nature and consequences of terrorism."

A Hagel appointment would also again demonstrate Obama’s tone-deafness when it comes to reassuring Israelis—a reassurance necessary for any real peace progress. For he will be nominating a man who in an interview that is now being widely posted said that: “The political reality is that ... the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” implying that support for Israel is more Astroturf than grassroots. He also once chided a pro-Israel critic by saying, “I’m a United States Senator. I’m not an Israeli senator,” further triggering fears that Hagel sees Israel through a distorted Walt-Mearsheimer lens rather than as a true blue-and-white friend to the red-white-and-blue.

The great Senator and American Ambassador to the U.N., Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who crossed the aisle gracefully, sought a muscular idealism in foreign policy, finding McGovern’s approach too apologetic and Kissinger’s approach too utilitarian. We must ask “how much does freedom matter to the United States today?” Moynihan preached. We must learn to recognize and confront totalitarian evil which will employ any tactic to advance particular goals, he advised. And he sought, his colleague Leonard Garment noted, “to generate excitement,” to “dramatize the ideology of the West.” That is not the skill set or track record Chuck Hagel brings—nor is that the skill set or track record John Kerry would bring to the State Department.  

The cynic in me cannot wait to watch all the Obamaniacs who pitched the President as Israel’s BFF, shoehorning the Hagel appointment into their boosterish worldview. I love watching Washington partisans grovel, backpedal, and spin. The idealist in me hopes that this “likely” appointment will be deep-sixed somehow and that Obama will fill his second-term foreign policy team with American visionaries who have the moral clarity of a Moynihan, the shrewdness of a Kissinger, and the pragmatism Obama himself articulated in his Nobel acceptance address.