In the eight weeks since being nominated to be Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel endured as Republicans in the Senate and their allies in the right-wing press lobbed unfounded accusation after unfounded accusation at him. Today, the campaign to unseat Barack Obama's pick came to an end, as 71 Senators agreed to break the filibuster and give Hagel an up-or-down vote. Some four and a half hours later, 58 of them voted to confirm him as the nation's 24th Secretary of Defense. A two-time recipient of the Purple Heart for his service in the Vietnam War, Hagel will become the first enlisted man to serve in the position, after a career in the private sector that brought him personal wealth and another one in public service that saw him serve two-terms in the Senate as a Republican from Nebraska.
"From the moment he volunteered for military service in Vietnam, Chuck has devoted his life to keeping America secure and our armed forces strong. An American patriot who fought and bled for our country, he understands our sacred obligations to our service members, military families and veterans," said Obama in a statement. "I will be counting on Chuck’s judgment and counsel as we end the war in Afghanistan, bring our troops home, stay ready to meet the threats of our time and keep our military the finest fighting force in the world."
Republican Senate staffers began to attack Hagel even before he was officially nominated: immediately after his name was floated, a Senate GOP aide told the Weekly Standard, "Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite." Aaron David Miller, whose 2008 interview with Hagel provided the source material for the charge, denounced it. But the attacks kept coming and, eventually filtered up to the Republican Senators themselves: the only redeeming thing about Hagel's poor performance during his confirmation hearing before the Armed Services Committee was that so much of the subsequent attention focused the Republicans' badgering questions, personal grudges and character attacks that, by innuendo, questioned Hagel's very loyalty to the country he was twice wounded defending. But the unprecedented campaign failed, with four Republican Senators voting today to confirm Hagel, along with all the Democrats and allied independents.
"I think Chuck Hagel will be an outstanding Secretary of Defense," said the former Senator's friend Steve Clemons, Washington editor-at-large of the Atlantic and a fixture in the foreign policy scene. "He'll being smart sensibilities to the job. You'll see him be smart and judicious and he's going to move beyond this slander-riden debate we've just had and demonstrate what it is to be a smartt national leader."
Neoconservative activists and journalists—some already with a long record of fact-free accusations—seemed to come after Hagel with no scruples whatsoever. Eventually, Republican Senators echoed their attacks. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas intimated that Hagel may have taken $200,000 from American enemies like North Korea or Iran. Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma repeatedly harped on a supposed endorsement Hagel received from the government of Iran, despite that the statements made by Iranian officials were boilerplate statements and did not contain an endorsement of any sort.
With Hagel's confirmation all but assured this afternoon, several Republican Senate opponents of his nomination told Foreign Policy's Josh Rogin that mending fences was Hagel's responsibility. "It is my hope, if he is confirmed as secretary of defense, that he will sit down with everyone on the committee and I will do everything in my power to work with him and I hope he takes different positions as secretary of defense than he did in the Senate," Sen. Kelly Ayotte (NH) told Rogin. "Traditionally, it's been a strong measure to have your secretary of defense have overwhelming bipartisan support, and he does not have that. So he's going to have to work extra hard to work with us on the committee. I will work with him."
A Democratic official who was involved with the confirmation but wouldn't be quoted by name because of expected official statements from leading Democrats told Open Zion that the Republicans might have it backward. "I think, as a Democratic official, that I would actually turn the responsibility back around," the official said. "Sen. Hagel said from the beginning that he wants a partnership with Congress," they added, pointing to Hagel's belief, having been a Senator himself, in Congress's role in oversight. "That's also one of the reasons he took an unprecedented number of meetings with Senators during the confirmation process: he met with 77 Senators knowing full well they wouldn't all vote for him."
"Sen. Hagel's not going to apologize to some of the people who've been insinuating completely unfounded and nasty things about him. Everybody in this relationship needs to operate in good faith, and it remains to be seen if others will," the official said. "Going forward he's going to look at how to deal with the issues while working with Congress. Let's hope everyone on the other side does too."
Clemons concurred: "The ones that need to reinvent the relationship are those who engaged in theatrical absurdities," said Clemons of those Republicans "who fought to abuse the filibuster and take a scorched-earth approach." Clemons added: "I think that Chuck Hagel will be judicious and not hold grudges, but he will build relationships in Congress and across the D.C. political spectrum by doing what he should do: by being a smart strategist and looking at how to protect our troops."
As trying as the confirmation may have been, Hagel's biggest challenges surely loom ahead, with massive defense cuts looming if Congress can't sort out a way to avoid the so-called sequestration imposed by the Budget Control Act last year. "Secretary-Designate Hagel is focused on the work he's got to do," the Democratic official said.