“Chuck Hagel, if confirmed to be the secretary of defense, would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history.” – Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC)
Over protests from some Senate Republicans, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) will be nominated as Secretary of Defense. Upon reading various opinion pieces on a Hagel nomination one gets the impression that the gates of Hell will open should the nomination occur. They won’t and U.S. foreign policy will continue more or less along the same trajectory under his leadership at the Pentagon. In other words, the United States will continue to be a staunch ally of Israel despite the impression given by Hagel’s opponents that he’s anti-Israel.
Hagel’s allies view him as uniquely qualified to take over the Pentagon. He’s a Vietnam veteran, twice wounded and awarded two Purple Hearts, and more importantly as a Senator, in 2003, when many of his colleagues were in lockstep with the Bush administration, he questioned the wisdom of invading Iraq. Ultimately he voted for the 2003 invasion but later said he regretted his vote.
In defending Hagel and his Iraq position, an administration official told The Washington Post, “A lot of Republican opposition (to Hagel) is rooted in the fact that he left his party on Iraq,” the official said. “And we think it will be very hard for Republicans to stand up and be able to say that they oppose someone who was against a war that most Americans think was a horrible idea.” Hagel’s controversial statements on Israel will likely prove to be the focus of his confirmation hearing. “The political reality is…that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” Hagel said in 2006. “I have always argued against some of the dumb things they do because I don’t think it’s in the interest of Israel. I just don’t think it’s smart for Israel.”
Perhaps his most problematic statement while serving as a U.S. Senator was Hagel’s comment to author Aaron David Miller, “I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States senator.” “I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States, not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that,” Hagel told Miller in an interview for his book The Much Too Promised Land.
President Obama’s decision to nominate Hagel and commit to a bruising confirmation hearing contrasts to the manner in which the administration responded to criticisms of Ambassador Susan Rice. In the end, Obama did not put up much of a fight for Rice to succeed Clinton at the state department. “It is a strange signal for the White House to send that they are willing to fight for Hagel but not Rice,” a Senate Democratic aide told Politico on Sunday.
Obama’s decision to not fight for a potential Rice nomination has some senators scratching their heads. However, the important distinction is that Hagel will, despite some objections from Sens. Graham and McCain, be confirmed. In contrast, Rice faced significantly stronger headwinds against her nomination. Senators are typically more supportive of their own and by most accounts Hagel still maintains decent relations with many of his former colleagues.
Hagel’s positions on Iran and Israel do deserve scrutiny by his former colleagues in the U.S. Senate who will most likely ultimately vote to confirm him as Secretary of Defense. Hagel has scrutinized Israeli settlement policy (which many Middle East experts consider a major impediment to a long-term peace deal), has proposed negotiating directly with Iran and has shown an unwillingness to support sanctions on Iran.
While Hagel’s position that the United States should negotiate directly with Iran and his opposition to some Iran sanctions might cause him some anxiety while testifying, it would be naïve to assume that his positions will become official U.S. policy in the Middle East. Hagel’s primary task will be to manage the Pentagon including the U.S. departure from Afghanistan and any residual forces that are left behind to train the Afghan military. If Obama decides to launch strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities it will be Hagel who has to oversee the strikes. Hagel is serving at the pleasure of the president and is aware of the job description.
If Hagel is confirmed as Sec. of Defense he will have to guide the Pentagon through deep budget cuts as a result of the sequester unless a deal can be made on Capitol Hill in two months. Hagel has previously argued that the Pentagon’s budget is “bloated” which current and former officials agree with. Domestically, Hagel has come under fire for comments he made in 1998 about James Hormel, Bill Clinton’s choice to be the U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg. Hormel, who is openly gay, was eventually appointed by Clinton but came under fire when Hagel suggested that Hormel was “openly, aggressively gay”. While Hagel has recently apologized, some gay rights groups oppose his nomination. Ultimately, opposition from some gay rights groups will not prove to be a disqualifier.
As Obama’s second term begins the Middle East is in transition with no resolution to the Syrian civil war or a feasible Israeli-Palestinian peace plan in place. For those seeking a more robust U.S. involvement in Syria to end the bloodshed they are unlikely to find an ally in Hagel. He has consistently argued against U.S. intervention abroad. His service in Vietnam colored his views of U.S. adventures abroad telling the online Vietnam Magazine in an interview, while serving there, “If I ever get out of this and I’m ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.” In retrospect, after a decade spent in Afghanistan and thousands of U.S. servicemen killed, that might be a needed change at the Pentagon.