New Attitude

01.31.13

Chameleon Chuck: How Hagel’s Views Have Changed

Hagel showed up to his confirmation hearing today with a whole new set of opinions. From Iran to nukes to “don’t ask, don’t tell,” Eli Lake on the defense nominee’s foxhole conversion. Plus, live updates from the Senate floor.

They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and while the Senate Armed Services Committee is hardly a war zone, it is proving to be the scene of a battlefield conversion for Chuck Hagel.

Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, who has spent the past eight years an avowed critic of what he saw as the wasteful militarism of the last Republican president, sounded at his confirmation hearing in Thursday like a tried-and-true neoconservative. He assured his former Senate colleagues that when it comes to Iran, “all options are on the table.” “My policy is one of prevention, and not containment,” Hagel said. This is quite a different tone for a man who said only a few years ago that he supported “unconditional and comprehensive talks” with the Islamic Republic.

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'Chuck Hagel stuck by his record during his confirmation hearing Thursday.'

But Chuck Hagel’s new opinions extend far beyond Iran. On the doctrine of pre-emption, something many liberals opposed when it was deployed to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Hagel now writes in response to questions from the committee: “The United States must reserve the right, consistent with longstanding principles of self-defense, to use military force if intelligence or other information clearly demonstrates that force is necessary to prevent or blunt an imminent attack on the United States or an ally.”

While Hagel is on the board of an organization called Global Zero, a group that supports the eventual eradication of all nuclear weapons, he now nonetheless is “committed to maintaining a modern, strong, safe, ready, and effective nuclear arsenal.” For good measure, Hagel said in his prepared remarks: “America’s nuclear deterrent over the last 65 years has played a central role in ensuring global security and the avoidance of a World War III.”

Nor is Hagel much of a social conservative anymore. As a senator, he opposed the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a policy that forced gays in the military to hide their identity or face expulsion and punishment. President Obama overturned the policy in his first term; Hagel is now on board, too. “I am fully committed to implementing the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and doing everything possible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our service members,” Hagel said Thursday.

Many of the former senator’s supporters have said that the attacks on Hagel’s record have been unfair and distorted his positions. But even Sen. Carl Levin, the Democratic chairman of the Armed Services Committee, acknowledged in his opening statement that Hagel has changed his views on Iran—and that his change of opinion on the topic was one of the reasons Levin supports Hagel’s nomination.

The conversions, however, are not enough for Sen. Jim Inhofe, the ranking Republican on the committee. In his opening statement Inhofe urged his colleagues to evaluate “the totality of [Hagel’s] record.” 

Inhofe acknowledged that there wasn’t much Hagel could say to change his mind. “After a long and careful review of his record, we are just too philosophically opposed on the pressing issues facing our country for me to support his nomination,” Inhofe said.

Give it time, senator—Hagel appears to be coming around to your view of things.