Why the Senate should Confirm Chuck Hagel as SecDef

Reprint edn.: this appeared earlier, but is a propos of today’s Senate confirmation hearings. A future column will treat that process:

I doubt Chuck Hagel, the former Republican senator from Nebraska, and I would agree about almost anything with regard to domestic US politics . . . But he isn’t being nominated for secretary of Housing and Urban Development. He is being nominated as Secretary of Defense. And on defense and foreign policy issues, Hagel’s views have much to recommend them. I testified in April, 2004, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on which Hagel served, about the then Mahdi Army uprising in Iraq. The chairman, Richard Lugar, and Hagel both struck me as informed and concerned about the situation. Others, like Sam Brownback, seemed almost robotic in throwing softballs to my fellow panelist, the neoconservative Richard Perle, who denied that there was any uprising. Hagel had voted for the Iraq War authorization, but raised questions even then about US ignorance of what it was getting into, and he later in the Bush years joined Democrats in voting to get out.

Here are some positive things about the Hagel nomination:

1. Chuck Hagel is a decorated war hero, having won two Purple Hearts as infantry squad leader in Vietnam. He knows what war is, unlike the usual gaggle of chickenhawks who have emerged to accuse him of not being warlike enough. The very notion of William Kristol in a uniform is enough to provoke mirth, but here is an influential man (why?) who never met a war he didn’t love. Hagel not only knows war but knows it from the point of view of the infantry and NCOs, not just the officer corps. Hagel is cautious about wars and what they can achieve, and has become more cautious over time, as his hands got burned by the Iraq resolution. This caution is admirable in a Secretary of Defense.

2. Hagel has been an advocate for veterans. He introduced legislation to limit deployments in Iraq, which failed. (Many Iraq vets served multiple 18-month tours, and many of their problems have to do with frequent, long deployments.) He was a principal co-sponsor of Sen. Jim Webb’s bill on GIs, which expanded educational opportunities for those who served after September 11 (the bill became law). Unlike many inside-the-Beltway hawks who use the troops for political purposes but cut veterans’ benefits when the war is over, Hagel cares.

3. Hagel has long opposed the use of sanctions instead of diplomacy in the Middle East, having argued on June 27, 2001 at a conference of the American Iranian Council that sanctions on Libya and Iran “isolate us” (Washington Times, March 29, 2002).

4. Hagel opposed George W. Bush’s and the Neoconservatives’ ‘muscular Wilsonianism,” the idea that the US should invade countries like Iraq and impose democracy on them: Hagel said in 2006, “You cannot in my opinion just impose a democratic form of government on a country with no history and no culture and no tradition of democracy… We have not always connected those fundamentals to our efforts.” (- International Herald Tribune, March 17, 2006)

5. After an Israeli bombing killed dozens of children at Qana during the Israeli attack on Lebanon in summer, 2006, Hagel criticized the Bush administration for declining to call for a ceasefire (i.e. supporting further Israeli military action), saying, “The sickening slaughter on both sides must end now, this madness must stop.” (- Irish Times, August 2, 2006)

6. In 2009, Chuck Hagel signed a letter along with public figures such as James Wolfensohn of the World Bank and former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski asking that the US government “Shift the U.S. objective from ousting Hamas to modifying its behavior, offer it inducements that will enable its more moderate elements to prevail, and cease discouraging third parties from engaging with Hamas in ways that might clarify the movement’s view and test its behavior.” The letter did not call for direct US negotiations with Hamas, though it perhaps implied that other intermediaries (the EU?) might. (- International Herald Tribune, March 26, 2009). Hamas is a force in Palestinian politics and pretending it doesn’t exist and branding it a terrorist organization to which we forbid ourselves from talking just further reduces the US from being an honest broker in negotiations to being a handmaiden of Likud Party policy.

7. Hagel supports withdrawal from Afghanistan, warning in a 2009 op-ed that the US cannot dictate the outcome there, but can only try to empower Afghans to pursue their own fate. He acknowledged that much will depend on Afghan-Pakistan relations. (Washington Post, September 3, 2009) If anything, Hagel seems to have been more eager to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan than was Obama himself, and he will be an excellent steward of the coming US disengagement from Afghanistan.

8. Hagel signed on to the Global Zero proposal, spearheaded by a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James E. Cartwright, which argued for very steep reductions in the US nuclear arsenal, on the grounds that deterrence can now be achieved with relatively few warheads, mounted on submarines rather than on land and in silos. (- International Herald Tribune, May 17, 2012)

9. Hagel joined former Centcom commander Gen. Anthony Zinni (ret.), former US ambassador to the UN Thomas Pickering and others in arguing that an air attack on Iran without putting US troops on the ground could only set back but not destroy Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, and would risk actually pushing Iran to develop a nuclear warhead. (The report Hagel endorsed is available in PDf here at the Wilson Center). At this point the evidence suggests (as outgoing Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak admitted) that Iran has not made a decision to pursue a nuclear bomb, as opposed to enrichment expertise. Hagel’s position is the only reasonable one, and it is a primary reason for which warmongers, chickenhawks, and American Likudniks have come after Hagel like a pack of jackals trying to beard a lone noble lion.

10. Hagel speaks his mind on the Israel-Palestine issue, unlike almost any other American politician still seeking public office. He castigated what he called the “Jewish lobby” for intimidating American politicians. The choice of phrase was unfortunate, since AIPAC and its affiliates do not represent American Jewry, which is significantly more liberal and less enthusiastic about the far rightwing Israeli parties and policies than the self-appointed ‘Israel lobby’ is. But John McCain’s riposte that there is an Armenian lobby but not a Jewish lobby is also kind of silly. Hagel has just said what President Gerald Ford did, that US policy toward Israel and Palestine should be guided by US interests. The leader of the sane Israel lobby, J-Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, has come to Hagel’s defense.

For Hagel’s appointment to go through is extremely important at this juncture. It will blunt if not altogether end the use by extremist Jewish nationalists of the charge of ‘anti-Semitism’ to sideline critics of any aspect of Israeli policy. It will set a precedent showing that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and other such organizations don’t always get their way on appointments, despite their long track record of shooting down capable Americans nominated for public service on the grounds that they are insufficiently worshipful of Israeli policy. ( Chas Freeman is a recent such victim of an orchestrated smear campaign, such that the US was deprived of his considerable expertise at a time it is desperately needed). It will put the far right wing coalition now in charge of Israel on notice that its intensifying colonization of Palestinian territory and attempt forever to forestall a 2-state solution is unacceptable. And it will signal that the US is not going to war against Iran for Bibi Netanyahu, however much William Kristol and the American Enterprise Institute demand it.

Hagel will be nominated and he will be passed by the Senate. And that process will be a turning point in the relationship of the US government to Israel and to its US lobbies. It is an extremely positive development, most of all for Israel itself, which cannot survive if it tries to annex the Palestinian West Bank (as Netanyahu obviously intends to do).

11 Responses

  1. Professor, with e respect,which Chuck Hagel are
    you referring to? He seems to have recanted almost everything he stands for. First was a meeting with Schumer and incredible compromises that he made there. (We have only Schumer’s account of the meeting, but it must be true since Hagel didn’t deny what Schumer said.) Then there was a meeting with jewish leaders in White House on 1/19. He recanted even more and bent over backwards. He really, seems to want the job badly. One can’t blame him either since his boss took to a run when Bibi pushed him back.

    If Obama wanted a really different defense policy, he should have selected Ron Paul! I bet Hagel will not even have the freedom of Gates now that he has made all those promises and retreated from most of his positions.

    • You don’t understand how American politics works.

      Hagel hasn’t retracted anything policy-wise.

      • Totally agreed. However the sickening display by many Republican Senators was nothing more than theater and bullshit.
        Hagel never recanted anything and that includes the Jewish Lobby. Pro-Israel Lobby is the same thing as saying Jewish Lobby. Who the hell is anyone kidding and if anyone doubts that AIPAC is not influencial and intimintating they are being totally dishonest. By the way, Israel. I believe Israel has the right to its security and statehood. I also believe that if Israel was a true ally it would sign a Defense Pac and Treaty. But even at that Israel get more than any formal ally we have signed, sealed and delivered. So gag me with a shovel. On the nuclear side. So we attack Hagle when Sam Nunn is sitting there? OK so when are we going to press Israel to sign the NPT?
        As far as Senator McCain is concerned. Its time for John to go home and retire. The surge was a absolute flop and we lost a ton of american blood over a surge that should have never happened and a war that should have never happened. I suppose it just dandy that McCain puffs out his chest over a lie that has taken many to the grave. I want anyone to tell me what success was achieved by any surge? Admiral McCain has to be rolling over in his grave…
        As far as Senator Lindsey Graham is concerned? Another pompous chickenhawk…

      • Totally agreed. However the sickening display by many Republican Senators was nothing more than theater and bullshit. Hagel never recanted anything and that includes the Jewish Lobby. Pro-Israel Lobby is the same thing as saying Jewish Lobby. Who the hell is anyone kidding and if anyone doubts that AIPAC is not influencial and intimintating they are being totally dishonest. By the way, Israel. I believe Israel has the right to its security and statehood. I also believe that if Israel was a true ally it would sign a Defense Pac and Treaty. But even at that Israel get more than any formal ally we have signed, sealed and delivered. So gag me with a shovel. On the nuclear side. So we attack Hagle when Sam Nunn is sitting there? OK so when are we going to press Israel to sign the NPT?

        As far as Senator McCain is concerned. Its time for John to go home and retire. The surge was a absolute flop and we lost a ton of american blood over a surge that should have never happened and a war that should have never happened. I suppose it just dandy that McCain puffs out his chest over a lie that has taken many to the grave. I want anyone to tell me what success was achieved by any surge? Admiral McCain has to be rolling over in his grave…

        As far as Senator Lindsey Graham is concerned? Another pompous chickenhawk…

  2. Dilettante remark for the hour:

    Just a thought: this guy will be “in charge” of a real Behemoth-of-many-self-interested-parts, all attached to the tax teat by a large-bore vacuum orifice. He may have experience of what “war,” the traditional notion of mano-a-mano combat is, from his Vietnam gig, and hopefully that will give him some backbone to resist really worst efforts of the Villager war wimps and chicken-policy-hawks, to spare other young men (and now women) and various “gooks” and “towelheads” and such the horrors of loosing all those ever-growing piles of increasingly lethal weapons into actual use.

    Running an “enterprise,” a Milo Minderbinder kind of “enterprise,” is another kind of game that masquerades behind the glory facade of WAR. He will be “in charge of” a huge amount of wealth transfer, from butter to bullets, orchestrated by a bunch of Harpies all screaming or sneaking around pushing their favorite Procurement Program or “service interests.” A 600-ship navy, with lots of places for Admirals to hang their ever-more-populous flags? More manned fighters and attack aircraft and bombers, requiring more General managers, or more increasingly autonomous UAVs? Gotta give the Marines something to do, to keep the sword’s edge sharp. And all that Black Ops stuff, with no guarantee he or the hopefully loyal members of his staff (all bound, supposedly, by that now-silly oath to “support and defend the Constitution”) will even know about.

    Maybe he could take a shot at enforcing simple (heh, heh) fiscal principles and accounting and accountability, so that the Gods of the Beltway could at least have a complete picture of what they are buying, in men, machines and “policy” magnets, for all that money they get from us and from places like the Social Security Trust Fund. Maybe he would take an interest in the (inevitable, I guess) corruption and incompetence in the whole War Industry game, dialing it back down to something a little less painfully obvious. Maybe he could take another shot at not just spray-painting another shade of “green” on the edifice, but actually putting all those resources to work addressing not who gets to use up the last bits of oil and water and air, but preserving them for some kind of posterity.

    All in a huge bureaucracy, staffed by people who know their tenure outlasts his, with their little interests and games. In a place with nominal “traditions” and “services” that span centuries, careers that span generations, programs that span decades. And with lobbyists and contractors circling, circling, circling… How does all that begin to be “managed” and “directed,” I’m way too small to begin to understand.

    My bet is he will be another nice figurehead, of a trillion-plus-a-year, heavily-armed (in all theatres, all nine AORs that cover the whole planet) operation. Presiding over a huge bureaucracy, with all the hidden niches and enormous momentum that keeps a guy in his new position from really doing much more than re-arranging the window dressing and a few seating positions and office assignments. On a large scale, he’s a bus driver, making thousands of life-or-death decisions every second of every minute he’s behind the wheel: steering, braking, acceleration, stopping, re-fueling, who to let on and off the bus, following some kind of route and trying to avoid collisions.

    Wish him luck… and hope his driving keeps us from something Really Stupid, like WW Whatever Number We Are On. All those thousands of short-target-time nukes are still deployed, after all.

  3. Chuck Hagel has advocated direct negotiations with Hamas as well as Iran. There are many leaders within Israel that support peace talks between Israel and Hamas.

    There has been criticism that many of the targeted leaders of Hamas that have been killed were those that had been leaning toward or actually a part of peace negotiations. A lawsuit was filed against the Israeli government by several prominent Israeli writers for the IDF assassination of a Hamas diplomat trying to negotiate a truce in 2002 during the Second Intifada. The same could be said for the recent IDF killing of Ahmed Jebari.

    The recent Oscar-nominated documentary “The Gatekeepers” bolsters the contention that political opportunism by Israeli leadership led to sabotage of the peace processes toward Palestinians. This was the conclusion of the six living Shin Bet intelligence chiefs interviewed.

    Chuck Hagel has gotten beyond the “taboo” of not negotiating with “terrorists”. The Labor and Meretz parties in Israel have likewse strongly pushed a meaningful two-state solution pursuant to good-faith negotiations with Paestinian-Arab leaders; some leaders of the new Yesh Atid Party have likewise emphasized serious negotiation is needed. This recent push to common sense practical peace initiatives could bear friut in the near future.

    • Israel knows that it must eliminate any reasonable and not co-opted Palestinian negotiators. Israel is happy to negotiate with Abbas. He can be strung along, paid off, and made to dance to whatever tune is called by Israel and the US. Abbas gets to be called “responsible” and a “partner for peace”. Even when he is called “not a partner for peace” it does not matter, it is all part of the show.

      What really scares Israel is something else: Israel knows that the rise of a Palestinian Mandela would be far more dangerous than even the most effective terrorist. A Palestinian terrorist will never get sympathetic hearing on the world stage. A Palestinian Mandela would. Anyway, Israel can do terrorism far better than any Palestinian. Negotiating an honest peace with Israel is probably more dangerous than firing missiles into Israel.

      A Palestinian Mandela could change the whole game. Israel’s few remaining supporters would start running. Even America, in due time, would have to follow along. That is why any Palestinian that does not conform to Israel’s idea of a “fair” peace ends up lost in Israel’s gulag or dead.

  4. Another reason, we need a voice of logic in the upper echelons. Having Hagel AND Kerry at the helms is very hopeful. I hope Secretary Kerry can reform the management system at State and protect whistleblowers. History has proved Hagel correct but there are so many overly-ambitious sorts and people who have no integrity who rose up in positions that had no business being there. Those people have come to make the bad decisions and that’s another reason why reform is needed in both bureacracies

  5. Juan, Hagel seemed to struggle to respond to Graham’s questions: “Name one person here who’s been intimidated by the Jewish lobby.” “Name one dumb thing we’ve been goaded into doing due to pressure by the Israeli or Jewish lobby.” It might be worth it, then, to write up a blog post specifically answering those questions, so that people criticizing the hardline pro-AIPAC stance have a reference.

    • In answer to that first “Name one …..” challenge, Hagel could have simply gone left to right, naming the people facing him. I suspect his somewhat flummoxed performance came from trying to go through the necessary motions without rising to such low, pathetic bait.

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