Rush to Judgment

12.24.12

Chuck Hagel Deserves Fair Hearing for Defense-Secretary Post

Critics trying to derail the ex-senator’s likely nomination as defense secretary should read his 2008 book to understand his true, reasonable views—and Obama should not allow himself to be intimidated out of picking him, says John Avlon.

The preemptive strike on Sen. Chuck Hagel’s possible nomination to be secretary of defense has been relentless this holiday season. It is trial by Twitter, character assassination by media narrative, a steady drumbeat of accusations and innuendo all designed to make the Nebraska Republican seem politically toxic.

The irony is that the political logic of a Hagel appointment is to demonstrate bipartisan outreach by President Obama—the appointment of a second Republican secretary of defense to follow in Robert Gates’s pre-Panetta footsteps. While Hagel has strong defenders, pointed critics have come from the far right, and a few from the far left. Liberal Democrats primarily question the need for any outreach to Republicans at all after a decisive election victory, while Republicans who might normally cheer the nomination of a fellow party member disdain Hagel for his outspoken independence during the Bush years.

Hagel’s cardinal sin among some conservatives is opposing the surge in Iraq and being the most vocal Republican critic of neoconservatism, saying, “For the most part, ideology hijacked diplomacy during the Bush administration.” He did so from the perspective of a small-government conservative and a highly decorated Vietnam vet, skeptical of the costs that come with unnecessary wars. This earned him lasting opposition from the neocon crowd, which has attempted to tar him as anti-Israel—a serious charge in our domestic politics and one easily blurred with the toxic personal accusation of anti-Semitism.

As a New Yorker and witness to 9/11, I am instinctively pro-Israel—along with Britain, they are our closest allies in a world too full of countries that would coddle tyrants and terrorists.

But beyond my appreciation for independent voices and bipartisan coalitions, my extended family’s experience with Chuck Hagel serves as a small character reference. He and my mother’s cousin Dean Phillips were friends and fellow Vietnam vets who worked together in the VA to under Presidents Carter and Reagan. Previously Dean served with the 101st Airborne Division as a paratrooper on long-range reconnaissance patrols and was awarded two Silver Stars, two Bronze Stars, and the Purple Heart. After the war, both men devoted themselves to their fellow soldiers in a time of thankless transition. When Dean died at age 42 of what was believed to be Agent Orange–related cancer, Hagel gave the eulogy. Even as a senator, years later, Hagel stayed in touch with Dean’s mother, Helen, back home in Ohio. The experience is anecdotal (I’ve never met the man), but it is testimony to his character.

Perspective on Hagel’s qualification is needed on at least two fronts. First, it is striking that so many of the vocal critics against Hagel’s possible appointment to serve as defense secretary have not served in the military. That would seem to be a prerequisite for the post, though of course it is not. Nonetheless, I’d be more interested in what leading members of the military—past and current—might say, rather than lobbyists or pundits, pro or con.

The most potent reality check, however, is a look at Hagel’s own beliefs as a counterweight to the accusations that have been thrown against him. In the surreal half-light of a trial-balloon nomination, it is difficult for an individual to come to his own defense. Statements are taken out of context, and facts offered up in isolation to present a picture of someone as a quasi-monster, disfigured beyond recognition even to those who know him. The antidote is available with a little effort—ditch the well-funded opposition research being fed to partisan pundits and instead take a look at what Hagel has written about his own beliefs.

Happily, there is such a primary text available: America: Our Next Chapter: Tough Questions, Straight Answers by Chuck Hagel with Peter Kaminsky. The book was written in 2008, so it is necessarily dated in places, thereby begging for a Senate hearing to clear up any relevant questions that have been raised. But instead of the caricature that is being attempted, Hagel comes across as a thoughtful patriot squarely in the mainstream of American foreign policy.

For example, on the subject the Middle East, Hagel describes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as “the aspirations of two people for the same narrow strip of territory. There is on the one hand the realization that the dream of the Jewish people to return to and live in peace with a sovereign Jewish state and on the other hand the emergence in the late 20th century of Palestinian nationalism and the movement for their right to self-determination.”

In the surreal half light of a trial-balloon nomination, it is difficult for an individual to come to his own defense.

But contrary to anti-Israel accusations, Hagel is steady if not monotone in his defense of the Jewish homeland, saying that “Israel, like all sovereign nations, has the undeniable right to defend itself against terrorism and aggression.” Nor is he evidently misty about Israel’s enemies: he takes Arafat to task for the failure of the 2000 Camp David negotiations—“He had 95 percent of what he asked for and then turned it down”—and describes Hamas alternately as a “radical Palestinian group” and a terrorist group in the same breath as Hizbullah.

Hagel is an unapologetic believer in active American diplomacy, but his baselines for peace talks are not naive: “There is one important given that is not negotiable: A comprehensive solution should not include any compromise regarding Israel’s Jewish identity, which must be assured. The Israeli people must be free to live in peace and security. Similarly, the Palestinian people must also have the same right to life in peace in Palestine with East Jerusalem being the capital and with the same hope for a prosperous future.”

Another pointed accusation directed at Hagel is the question of how he would deter Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. In 2008 his position and perspective were far from accommodationist. He condemns “Iran’s dangerous, destabilizing, and threatening behavior” at length and says clearly that “an Iranian nuclear breakout would have dangerous consequences in a region characterized by unresolved and longstanding conflicts. This is a potentially nuclear match that could ignite a Middle East bonfire.”

But America’s blunder into Iraq frames Hagel’s perspective on how to deal with Iran. “We blundered into Iraq because of flawed intelligence, flawed assumptions, flawed judgments, and ideologically-driven motives. We must not repeat these errors with Iran and the best way to avoid them is to maintain an effective dialogue. Preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon is in the interest of both the United States and the world community.”

Hagel is under no illusions about the Islamic Republic even if he adopts a more nuanced tone than some in his party on the subject: “One of the world’s oldest civilizations, Iran is a proud nation with a long rich history. It is also, at the same time, a nation that is a state sponsor of terrorism. We must understand ‘both’ Irans and factor them both into our policies and strategic interests.”

With Iran, Hagel is willing to offer the Islamic Republic a wide range of incentives in return for this baseline: “if Iran abstains from a nuclear weapon program, ends support for terrorist groups, recognizes Israel, and engages in more constructive policies in Iraq.” Four years later, it would be interesting to hear whether Hagel—like Obama—no longer believes that Iran is a credible candidate for engagement. But that too is a subject for a confirmation hearing.

Most relevant to the question of what kind of SecDef Chuck Hagel might be are his paragraphs on the Pentagon. Hagel notes that, “Our defense department is the largest department in the federal government. Its fiscal year 2008 budget was $648.8 billion ... This kind of immense concentration of power is not a natural ally with, or conducive to, accountability. Too often this gargantuan machine’s resources are used as economic development projects for states and congressional districts. Senators and Representatives earmark special appropriations for their pet projects under the mask of defense spending ... financing politically-connected private companies through complicated, shadowy no-bid contracts that are useless to our national defense. It is wrong, wasteful, dishonest and dangerous.”

All this should be music to most anti-crony-capitalism, fiscal-conservatives ears, echoing the words of another Republican veteran, Dwight Eisenhower.

There are those who will find principles and policy differences with Hagel from his statements, writings or time in the Senate. Many conservatives will question his belief in diplomacy, but Hagel notes that Reagan was always willing to negotiate with the evil empire. 

The attack on Hagel itself is a measure of how far outside the historic mainstream of Republican foreign-policy thought much of the current debate has strayed. Hagel is guided by memories of his own time in Vietnam and his determination to use that experience to make different decisions if he ever got the chance. “After being wounded I made myself a promise that if I ever got out of that place and was ever in a position to do something about war—so horrible, so filled with suffering—I would do whatever I could to stop it. I’ve never forgotten that promise. I made it to myself but also to everyone who answers their call to serve the country. I think of it every day, because once you set war in motion, its consequences are often the ones least intended and they are always uncontrollable. Misery begets misery. Death begets more death and the violent vicious circle becomes a spiral which, in our time, presents the very real possibility of the Molotov cocktail being replaced by the nuke.”

This seems to be precisely the right perspective for a secretary of defense. In addition, Hagel’s inherent fiscal conservatism, his Ike-like focus on curbing waste and abuse in the defense budget, is uniquely suited to the challenges of our times. Some principled voices might conclude that Hagel is insufficiently pro-Israel, but that too is worthy of exploration and debate, rather than being considered a preemptive firing offense. The questions that remain can be clarified in a Senate confirmation hearing, but the Obama administration should not allow itself to be intimidated from following through on what would be an excellent addition to a second-term cabinet that could revive the idea that “partisanship ought to end at the water’s edge.”