The Hagel nomination for Defense Secretary

I tend to not get too interested in presidential nominations for cabinet posts, feeling that it is only under extreme circumstances that the president should be denied his choice since after all cabinet members are supposed to be the agents that execute the policies that the president campaigned on. Once a president is elected, he or she should be given considerable freedom in selecting those around him whom he thinks will do just that.

The one post that I think requires extra scrutiny is that of Attorney General since that person has great power over ordinary individuals, even with regard to life and death and freedom, and having a partisan political operative in that role could be highly dangerous. The Attorney General, though nominated by the president, has to be someone who has shown independence of mind and the ability to act even against the administration of which he is a part and those qualities should be looked for in the nominating process.

There are reports that Barack Obama is going to nominate former Republican senator Chuck Hagel to be his new Defense Secretary to replace Leon Panetta. Hagel has served in the military and fought in Vietnam as an infantryman and was decorated. He is a Republican nominated by a Democratic president and thus ‘bipartisan’ in the sense beloved by the Villagers. He served two terms in the Senate from Nebraska (which is part of the ‘heartland’ and ‘the real America’ much beloved by conservatives, unlike the anti-American elitist bi-coastal regions) and that body tends to view favorably former colleagues. He is by any measure in the mainstream of US politics and would faithfully continue US policy of using its military to further its imperial ambitions and seek hegemony over the world. Hence one would think that his nomination would breeze through the process to a swift and easy confirmation.

But Hagel has been deemed to be controversial. Why? Because he has not shown slavish devotion to Israel nor an eager willingness to act belligerently against Israel’s perceived enemies, and thus the Israel lobby seems to have called upon its supporters in Congress and the media to fight the nomination.

One of the interesting features of the opposition to Hagel is the attempt co-opt include liberals into it by bringing up Hagel’s opposition in 1998 to James Hormel’s nomination to be US ambassador to Luxemburg because Hormel was, as Hagel then said, “openly, aggressively gay”. This statement is undoubtedly deeply offensive. But as Glenn Greenwald says, one needs to look at it in its historical context:

When it comes to LGBT equality, 1998 is a different universe. Virtually no prominent Democrats (let alone Republicans) supported marriage equality back then, or even equal rights for LGBT citizens. In fact, Hagel’s comment came only two years after the overwhelming majority of Democratic Senators voted in favor of the truly odious and discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act – including Joe Biden, Patty Murray, Pat Leahy and Paul Wellstone – which was then signed into law by Bill Clinton. That law not only defined marriage as between a man and a woman, but barred the federal government from issuing any spousal benefits – immigration, tax, death benefits – to same-sex couples. If you’re going to judge politicians by how they felt about LGBT issues 15 years ago, be prepared to scorn almost every national Democratic Party hero you have as a bigot.

In fact, back in 2008 – only four years ago – here’s what Barack Obama, speaking on CNN in front of Rev. Rick Warren’s Christian group, had to say when Warren asked him why he opposes same-sex marriage:

“I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it’s also a sacred union. God is in the mix.”

The very idea that secular law should deny equal rights to LGBT citizens because Obama’s religion teaches that God frowns upon homosexuality is both offensive and warped. Yet almost nobody (including me) entertained the idea that Obama’s candidacy should be opposed due to his overt, toxic advocacy of anti-gay discrimination. And that was only four years ago, not fifteen.

So yes: like virtually every prominent politician in both parties, Chuck Hagel had primitive and ugly views on gay issues back in 1998. But shouldn’t the question be: does he still hold these views or, like huge numbers of Americans, have his viewed evolved since then? Hagel has apologized for what he said, an apology which Hormel accepted, graciously noting: “I can’t remember a time when a potential presidential nominee apologized for anything… Since 1998, fourteen years have passed, and public attitudes have shifted–perhaps Senator Hagel has progressed with the times, too.” Moreover, Hagel last week also vowed that he is “fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families.”

The openly gay foreign policy insider, Steve Clemons, has known Hagel for years, and two weeks ago wrote in the Atlantic that “Chuck Hagel is pro-gay, pro-LGBT, pro-ending ‘don’t ask, don’t tell.’” Beyond his policy views, Clemons recounted personal incident after personal incident that completely negates the accusation that Hagel now harbors bigotry toward gay people.

Greenwald then gets right to the key issue of why the Israel lobby is concerned about Hagel:

There’s a reason Hagel’s nomination has become so intensely controversial and such a vicious target for war-cheering neocons such as Bill Kristol and the Washington Post Editorial Board. It’s because Hagel is one of the very, very few prominent national politicians from either party who has been brave enough to question and dissent from the destructive bipartisan orthodoxies on foreign policy. What plausible Democratic candidate for this job has been willing publicly to point out that the US and Israel are separate countries and American interests should trump Israeli interests when they conflict, or to advocate for direct negotiations with Hamas, or to candidly point out that America’s Middle East wars are fought for oil, or to condemn the power of the pro-Israel lobby within both parties, or to harshly point out the stupidity of attacking Iran rather than cowardly mouth the “all-options-on-the-table” platitude?

Greenwald pretty much captures my attitude towards this nomination:

The benefits of a Hagel nomination shouldn’t be overstated. As I said last week, I agree with those who doubt that Hagel will have any real impact on restraining Obama’s aggressive and imperialistic foreign policies.

But at the very least, Hagel’s confirmation will be a much-needed declaration that some mild dissent on foreign policy orthodoxies and Israel is permitted. It will shatter AIPAC’s veto power and dilute the perception of the so-called “pro-Israel community’s” unchallengeable power.

I have given big chunks of quotes but you should read the whole thing.