Obama Nominates Hagel With Shots At Critics

Sigal Samuel explains the President's subtle digs at Hagel's pro-Israel and right-wing critics.

Following weeks of speculation, President Obama has nominated Chuck Hagel to serve as the country’s next Secretary of Defense. And he’s done it in an apparently uncontroversial way, with a speech that seems, at first glance, to ignore all the ugly vitriol and spilled ink that the potential Hagel nomination engendered—particularly from Israel’s right-wing Stateside defenders. But take a moment to scratch beneath the speech’s nicey-nice surface and you’ll hear echoes of the heated debates that have surrounded the Hagel nomination—and Obama himself—for weeks.

Take, for example, the first sentence of Obama’s speech: “As President and Commander-in-Chief, my most solemn obligation is the security of the American people.” Sounds simple, right? Only it’s not. Back in September, Obama came under attack for telling 60 Minutes the same thing: “When it comes to our national security decisions, any pressure that I feel is simply to do what’s right for the American people. And I am going to block out any noise that’s out there.” Immediately, pro-Israel right-wingers attacked Obama for “insulting” and “snubbing” the Jewish state, even though he’d simply expressed the fact that, for him, the American people come first, and even though he quickly went on to express support for Israel. By reiterating today that American security is his top priority, Obama subtly telegraphed his determination to keep blocking out such voices.

Observers of the Hagel struggle may also hear in Obama’s first sentence an echo of Hagel’s now-infamous statement that “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator,” which triggered fears in the pro-Israel establishment. Of course, Obama is far less candid than Hagel—as Peter Beinart wrote today, the Democratic Party has come to be defined by a culture of caution and timidity—and so his statement of priorities was much subtler than Hagel’s. Still, his words suggest that when it comes to America’s special relationship with Israel, the President and Hagel share much the same view.

And Obama went further. Praising Hagel, he noted:

Each of us has a responsibility, Chuck has said, to be guided not by the interests of our party or our president even, but by the interests of our country.

On the one hand, this should be an uncontroversial statement. The Secretary of Defense takes an oath to the Constitution, not to his party or to the president, so for Hagel to prioritize American interests over the president’s should be a non-issue. But, given the context of the anti-Hagel campaign, it’s a surprising and even daring thing for the President to say. The notion that Hagel might prove insubordinate, might not adhere to the principles that Obama has established concerning Israel, is exactly what Hagel’s right-wing critics fear. Obama’s statement makes it seem like he’s playing directly into their hands.

There’s another way to look at it, though, and that is that Obama is actually exposing the absurdity of the critics’ suggestion that a voice of dissent is something to be feared. By insisting that he admires Hagel’s “willingness to speak his mind even if it wasn’t popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom,” he suggests that, on the contrary, a dissenting voice is something to be prized.

And in fact, Obama’s short speech is peppered with these oblique takedowns of right-wing and pro-Israel attacks on Hagel.

On the notion that Hagel’s penchant for diplomacy makes him too soft on Iran:

Maybe most importantly, Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction. He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that’s something we only do when it’s absolutely necessary. My frame of reference, he has said, is geared towards the guy at the bottom, who’s doing the fighting and the dying.

On the notion that Hagel is not invested in Israel as an ally:

Chuck recognizes that American leadership is indispensable in a dangerous world. I saw this in our travels together across the Middle East. He understands that America stands strongest when we stand with allies and with friends.

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On the notion that Hagel’s record on LGBT rights, and his former views on Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, are irredeemable:

As these leaders know, the work of protecting our nation is never done, and we still have much to do…[like] continuing to ensure that our men and women in uniform can serve the country they love no matter who they love.

Obama may be cautious, timid, and subtle. And subtlety, as we know, doesn’t always work. But today, Obama’s subtle speech should serve to reassure those who support Israel and Hagel, and who have spent weeks begging the President to ignore the pro-Israel right’s attacks, that their pleas did not fall on deaf ears.