Why Republicans Hate Chuck Hagel

Military analysis.
Jan. 6 2013 8:37 PM

The Real Reason Republicans Hate Hagel

It has more to do with President Obama than the former senator from Nebraska.

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Then Sen. Chuck Hagel in October 2008.

Photo by JUNKO KIMURA/AFP/Getty Images

It’s good news that President Obama will nominate Chuck Hagel as his secretary of defense, despite the frantic campaign against him that’s been mounted by certain Republicans.

I don’t think that he chose Hagel because of the opposition. It’s generally not Obama’s style to pick a fight for its own sake (cf. Rice, Susan). He’s an issues man, and he faces many fights on other pressing matters. If he thought that someone less controversial could do the job at the Pentagon, he’d have gone with that person in a flash (cf. Kerry, John).

The real question is what kind of job Obama wants his next secretary of defense to do. I have no inside knowledge on this, but judging from some of his actions and remarks on matters of national defense, Hagel seems to be the right choice. And that’s what disturbs the most outspoken Hagel-resisters.

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These resisters have four main concerns. They fear that Hagel will cut the military budget. They fear that he’ll roll over if Iran builds a nuclear weapon. They fear that he’s too reluctant to use military force generally. And they fear he doesn’t much like Israel; the extremists on this point claim he’s anti-Semitic.

Let’s look at these points, one by one.

It is true that Hagel once said the defense budget was “bloated” with unnecessary items. Does anyone doubt this is true? Even if sequestration is avoided, the military services are coming in for some cuts, maybe some drastic ones. That always happens after a war, and with good reason; the money spent on those wars is no longer needed. The baseline military budget (excluding the costs of the wars) amounts to $525 billion. Adjusting for inflation, that’s only 7 percent less than what Ronald Reagan spent on defense at the peak of the Cold War—a time when massive Soviet tank armies were poised on the East-West German border and a nuclear arms race was spiraling out of control. It’s hard to argue that we need more money for defense than we spent back then. We still face threats, but not the kinds of threats requiring massive sums on fighter aircraft, tanks, submarines, and nukes.

It’s also true that Hagel isn’t keen on going to war with Iran. Two things here: First, the same is true of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and most of the American people; second, ultimately, the point is irrelevant. The president makes these sorts of decisions. Obama has said that he will not allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. Some Republicans say that they don’t believe him and that by picking Hagel—who would have a loud say in deliberations on the issue—the president is confirming their worst suspicions. First, they have no evidence for this claim. Second, maybe they’re right; but either way, does the Senate’s role of “advise and consent” include an insistence that the secretary of defense favor a policy that they believe the president opposes? Are they sure that Michele Flournoy—the former undersecretary of defense who had also been under consideration for the top job (and who was touted as the superior candidate by such neo-cons as Paul Wolfowitz)—would take a harder line on the subject? And are they really sure what Hagel’s position is? For the past year, he has been co-chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, where he has won plaudits from several veteran intelligence officials for his probity and objectivity. One of these officials told me that, during discussions of intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program, Hagel put no political spin on the issue.

Again, the Republicans’ real problem on Iran is with Obama—or, rather, with what they think Obama stands for. In the wake of his incontestable re-election, Hagel serves as a stand-in.

On the issue of military force, Hagel is more dovish than many Republicans and perhaps some Democrats. He opposed the Iraq war, but so did Obama (then an Illinois state senator), and, as is clearer now than ever, they were right. More disturbing to some conservatives, he opposed President Bush’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq. The surge and its accompanying shift in strategy did help significantly tamp down the violence in Iraq and allowed, five years later, for a dignified U.S. exit. In that sense, it “worked.” But it only bought time for the Iraqi political factions to settle their differences. (That’s all that Gen. David Petraeus, the strategy’s architect, ever claimed it could do.) And now it’s clear that the factions didn’t want to settle their differences, and so ethnic clashes have persisted, and the issues that divide the factions are no closer to settlement. Therefore, was Hagel so wrong? And, for what it’s worth, Obama, now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time opposed the surge, too. Are Hagel’s critics denouncing any of them? Again, they’re really going after Obama.

But the bugaboo issue—the third rail when it comes to foreign policy—is Israel. As a senator, Hagel once complained to a reporter that “the Jewish lobby” intimidates many lawmakers on Capitol Hill. And he once intoned that he was a senator from Nebraska, not a senator from Israel. These may have been impolitic remarks, but they weren’t false—either in strict substance or in spirit.

No one could deny that AIPAC has an overpowering influence on many lawmakers. Hagel’s sin, in the eyes of some, was to call it the “Jewish lobby” instead of the “Israel lobby.” If this is a sin, AIPAC and its allies have brought it on themselves. For decades, they have thundered that criticism of Israel is thinly disguised anti-Semitism. Yet they cry “anti-Semitism” again when someone inverts the equation (which is what the phrase in question amounts to: If anti-Israel equals anti-Jewish, then pro-Israel equals pro-Jewish). As for saying that he’s a senator from Nebraska, not Israel: Had he or any other senator said this about any other country (“I’m not a senator from France … England … Canada” or wherever), no one would have batted an eye. To accuse him of anti-Semitism on these grounds is to reveal a staggeringly deep paranoia—or a sensitivity far too acute to be allowed any role in American politics.

An open letter from nine former U.S. ambassadors, five of them ex-ambassadors to Israel, strongly endorses Hagel for secretary of defense and rejects as ludicrous the charge that he’s anti-Semitic (as does the columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, who’s perceptive on such matters). Again, the complaints about Hagel are proxy-complaints about Obama, who is denounced by these critics as soft on Israel, even though the recently retired Israeli defense minister said that Obama has done more for Israeli security than any U.S. president in recent memory.

Let’s look at the real issues. Hagel is a former two-term Republican senator. He won two Purple Hearts as an infantry squad leader in Vietnam. No one could possibly dispute his devotion to the country, its security, or its armed forces. But he is a pragmatist, and there may be the rub. What Republicans seem to fear most is that by appointing Hagel as secretary of defense, Obama can claim a false bipartisanship in his national-security team. In fact, these critics say Hagel does not reflect the values or positions of the Republican Party; his presence in Cabinet meetings would not constitute real bipartisanship.

If that is true, the real problem is with the present-day Republican Party. It’s often said that today’s GOP wouldn’t nominate Ronald Reagan for president. By the same token, much of its leadership would rail against Robert Gates for secretary of defense.

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