The Senate and Chuck Hagel

Much has been revealed about Barack Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary in recent weeks. A quick rundown:

There’s more, but let’s just take these issues and ask how the Senate should consider them.

Hagel’s problem with Israel: Let’s posit that Hagel doesn’t have a problem with the Jews, but rather with the policies of the State of Israel, as his supporters allege. Do we want a defense secretary who believes the greatest challenge the U.S. faces in the Middle East is the fact that Israel has not made peace with the Palestinians? Not Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Not the rise of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Not the collapse of Syria. Not the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood. Not the takeover of Lebanon by Hezbollah. Not the return of al Qaeda in Iraq. Just Israel.

Hagel’s problem with supporters of Israel: He has referred to the Jewish lobby. But so have others. More troubling is his insistence that he is not the senator from Israel.  Because, apparently, 99 other senators are? Because supporting Israel is somehow tantamount to being a traitor? Remember, we all support Hagel’s right to say whatever he wants. But do we want a defense secretary who believes that support for Israel can be traced back to the “intimidation” of a lobby that has roots in dual loyalty?

Hagel’s lack of a problem with Iran: There are plenty who want warmer relations with Iran, most of whom are supporting the Hagel nomination vigorously. But do we want a secretary of defense who believes our sanctions don’t work? Who didn’t support them?  Who thinks that Iran must be part of any “solution” to the problems of the Middle East? Who believes that Iran’s proxies in Hezbollah and Hamas should be negotiating partners for the United States? Again, all of that is fine for the Chairman of the Atlantic Council. But SecDef?

The sequester: Sure, Senator Hagel voted for “bloated” Pentagon budgets in the past. The past is not at issue. He has stated clearly when asked about the sequester that the Pentagon remains over-funded. Do we care if the head of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board thinks that? No. But the secretary of defense?

The nuclear arsenal: Hagel is in august company in supporting the Global Zero movement. But his Global Zero compatriots are not up for a job at the Pentagon, where he will be part steward of our nuclear arsenal — an arsenal he wishes to cut by 80 percent, and implicitly believes denies the United States the moral authority to demand that Iran and North Korea end their own nuclear weapons programs. This isn’t some retired official. This is, if confirmed, the next secretary of defense.

Social views: Personally, I couldn’t care less whether Chuck Hagel has an A from the NRA and a zero rating from NARAL. Those aren’t going to be his issues at the Pentagon, if confirmed. But…Chuck Hagel, U.S. Senator, didn’t see things that way. When he opposed the nomination of James Hormel to be Ambassador to Luxembourg, Hagel wasn’t interested in the fact that Hormel wasn’t going to be making policy about homosexuality off there in one of Europe’s lovely Grand Duchies  It was enough for him that Hormel was “openly, aggressively gay.”

What of Hagel’s conversion on all these issues? Honestly, the man has repudiated almost everything he ever said. Can anything he now says be believed? In any case, if confirmed, we must presume that Hagel will again be Hagel, and not the self-abnegating nominee.

Finally, there is the question of deference to the president and his choice for his cabinet. The Senate must always err in favor of confirming nominees, and usually does so. If not, all confirmations would happen on party lines. But yesterday, John Kerry was confirmed to be secretary of state with only three dissenting votes. The Senate is deferential to those with whom it disagrees. Regarding Hagel, the issue is not disagreement, but fitness for the post, a range of views outside the American mainstream of left and right, and a history that must give pause to the 100 men and women who represent the American people in the U.S. Senate. Those people — the American people — are owed a greater deference, because it is their national security that is at stake.

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