As Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s nominee for Defense secretary, makes the rounds on Capitol Hill, senators should judge him not only on what he says now, but also on his voting record in the U.S. Senate.
The Department of Defense recently sent around a fact sheet about the Nebraska Republican to dispel a number of “myths” that he is not supportive of Israel, is soft on Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas, would gut the defense budget and lacks the managerial experience for the job.
Perhaps things have changed since I spent a decade at the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, but I do not recall ever receiving such a missive from any government department about any nominee. First, the PR value is questionable, as this purported “fact sheet” only underscores the many troubling questions about a nominee it putatively assists. Second, it begs the question of whether the president himself asked these questions and suggests, given the weakness of the defense, that he did not. Lastly, it is rarely wise to assert — using partial quotes and unverifiable imputations of “belief” — that someone was misunderstood or misquoted when the historical record demonstrates the opposite.
Hagel’s record has been ably dissected. There are few in the national security realm not aware that he voted against designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist entity, that he demurred when 99 of his colleagues wrote a letter to the then Russian president decrying a rise in anti-Semitism, that he wrote to President Obama calling for direct talks with Hamas, that he referred to pro-Israel activists as “the Jewish lobby” and felt the need to suggest that the “Jewish lobby” “intimidates” members of Congress.
Most are well aware he believes the Defense Department remains “bloated” even after nearly half a billion dollars in cuts (not including the prospect of sequestration that now looms); that he is an advocate of “global zero,” an effort to bring U.S. (and other) nuclear stockpiles down to ... zero; that he has an “A” rating from the NRA and a zero rating from NARAL. And some are aware that there are questions about Hagel’s management that have far less to do with the question of experience (after all, what “management experience” did Hillary Clinton bring to State?) and far more to do with the manner in which he led his Senate office.
In most cases, Hagel and his defenders have resorted to rebuttals that rely on assertions about what the nominee really believes. “Don’t look at my record and don’t listen to what I said,” Hagel and his team demand, “look into my heart.” He does, Hagel insists, care about the U.S.-Israel relationship. He says that he’s ready — oh so ready — to use force against Iran; is no less game than many to embrace Hamas and Hezbollah; is in fine company when he insists on eradicating nuclear weapons, beginning here at home (not in, say, Iran or North Korea); and that he hates sequestration. And as to the claim that underpinning his soft record on Iran and harsh record on Israel there is a hint of anti-Semitism, Hagel and team have trotted out a parade of Jews to insist it just ain’t so.
The problem is that while there are plenty who agree with Hagel on Israel, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, sanctions, Pentagon bloat, eliminating nuclear weapons and the “intimidation” of the “Jewish lobby,” they are not being nominated to lead the Department of Defense. Nor does one’s ability to summon up supporters of a particular caliber or religion vitiate a clear pattern of behavior.
Most nominees have situational political transformations. It is rare that one finds anyone totally in sync with any president’s every utterance, and fewer still who agree with all the Democrats and Republicans on the committee that will hear their nomination. Yet, in order to be confirmed, nominees will promise the earth. Confirmation is, after all, the moment of maximal Senate leverage over any executive branch official. Once confirmed, that leverage disappears, and for the most part, we see reversion to the mean.
What does that tell us about the Hagel nomination? It tells us that he will do his utmost to persuade senators of his bona fides regarding all those “myths” the Pentagon sought to refute. And I have little doubt he will do a good job; Hagel is a suave politician with a keen memory and a knack for pleasing those he wishes to propitiate. But unless he can go back in time and rewrite his record, his situational transformation must be dismissed. Hagel should not be confirmed.
Pletka is vice president for foreign and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute.