Obama has made it official, nominating former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. This is not a surprise. Hagel has been an informal consultant for Obama when he’s looking for an alternative view on policy. He has a background of being a squad leader in Vietnam where he earned two purple heart and spent 20 years as a businessman. And his name has been circulating for weeks.
Hagel, of course, has been the target of some heavy criticism since his name was floated. Bill Kristol has led the charge, alleging that Hagel is soft on Iran and anti-Israel. I don’t think that’s the case, but I also think it’s kind of irrelevant. Hagel is not being nominated for Secretary of State, where diplomacy and foreign policy is decided. He’s being nominated as Secretary of Defense, in charge of running our wars.
That, I think, is the critical thing here. Hagel was one of the first to recognize the calamity that was unfolding in post-war Iraq. He’s also been very skeptical that we need a defense budget that exceeds what we were spending during Vietnam. Those two things alone make him a target for the neocons. Cato makes the libertarian case for him:
The reason people should care about his nomination is fairly simple. Hagel successfully running the DC gauntlet could be a perestroika moment in the American foreign and defense policy debate, and possibly even loosen the neoconservative stranglehold on the GOP. That’s something worth caring about.
As to what effect Hagel would have on DOD and/or U.S. defense policy, it’s actually tough to say for sure. He has admitted that the Pentagon is bloated and deserves to be cut. So he is unlikely to strike the Situational Keynesian pose that the GOP defense policy establishment have. He has historically been a skeptic about the benefits of bombing Iran and seems to favor a more serious effort at diplomacy. But I hope the hearing will smoke out the nominee’s views a bit better on these issues.
If Hagel survives this process, it will show that you can stare down the neocons and live to tell the tale. And if the Hagel nomination can demonstrate that you don’t need to fear Bill Kristol, the country and our foreign policy will be better off for it.
I’ll wait until the hearings to see what comes out. But, as of today, I’m leaning toward accepting the nomination for one simple reason: this is as conservative a candidate we are likely to get from Obama. Hagel would not be my ideal choice. And I’m sure the GOP could sink him if they wanted to. And Obama would run out some pansy-ass liberal who doesn’t know a gun from a kumquat but mouthed the correct inanities on Israel and Iran.
The reason I think Hagel is being nominated is not because he’s “anti-Israel” as he clearly isn’t unless you think any criticism of Israel is anti-Israel. The reason is because he’s likely to get the Pentagon to request less defense spending. No matter who becomes Secretary of Defense, spending cuts are coming, one way or another. Who would we rather have figuring out where those cuts should come from? Some career bureaucrat? Or a twice-decorated Vietnam veteran and businessman?
This is reality. Elections have consequences and I tend to defer to Presidents on their appointments unless they put up someone clearly unqualified. The Republicans are not going to get someone who lines up with every bit of received wisdom. Hagel, for all his flaws, is about as good as we’re going to get. The GOP needs to learn to take “meh” for answer.
Update: Here’s what the GOP was saying about Hagel just six years ago. Kristol himself wanted Hagel as VP in 2000.