When it became known that former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) was President Barack Obama’s likely choice as the next secretary of defense, a skirmish broke out between supporters and detractors that was reminiscent of the recent, vitriolic presidential campaign. Now that the president has formally nominated Mr. Hagel, it is time to ignore the slogans and petty politics and to focus instead on whether Hagel is the right man for the job.
We are now familiar with Mr. Hagel’s “unorthodoxy” when it comes to Israel — for example, his call for engagement with Hamas. And, of course, we have heard how he said that he chafed against the pressure of the pro-Israel community, and once referred to it as the “Jewish lobby.” We know that he supported the Iraq War before he opposed it. And that he has a checkered record on Iran sanctions. And we are reminded that then Sen. Hagel opposed an openly gay nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg, calling him an “openly, aggressively gay” man.
At the same time, Hagel is a former Republican senator and a decorated Vietnam War veteran, who would bring bipartisan and military credibility to the Department of Defense; that he is broadly aligned with the president’s defense policies, having served as co-chairman of Obama’s intelligence advisory board; and that he is brave enough to question perceived wisdom.
Hagel is a complex man with a public background and history worthy of inquiry. But let’s not get caught up in things that aren’t important to the job. For example, in the run-up to Hagel’s confirmation hearings, let’s not forget that the secretary of defense does not set America’s defense policy. Rather, the secretary is charged with implementation of the president’s policies. Obama’s defense policy has been on display for the past four years. Whether you support it or oppose it, at least you know what it is.
Certainly Hagel should be asked questions: Does he favor continuing the Iron Dome missile defense system? Will he work to strengthen security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority? Will U.S. Navy ships continue to call at the Port of Haifa?
In addition to those areas, let’s understand Hagel’s views on the civil war in Syria; the military ramifications of the evolving political situation in Egypt; American readiness to meet the nuclear challenge in Iran; and his views on China, Russia and al-Qaida. These are all fair areas of inquiry, and they should be pursued. What will not do is the spectacle of elected officials on the Senate’s Armed Services Committee using artificial issues as a substitute for meaningful inquiry.
We all understand that the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense is a serious issue. We urge that he be questioned thoroughly, fairly and respectfully. If he is the right man for the job, vote to confirm. If he is not, vote against him. But we urge the Senate to question him and vote on his nomination on the merits, rather than based upon political expediency.