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.


  1. slc1 says

    I have to say that the support for Mr. Hagel by Israel bashers like Glenn Greenwald, Mano Singham, Stephen Walt and the folks over at mondoweiss and counterpunch does not help his cause, as Jeffrey Goldberg has pointed out on his blog. However, after some cogitation, like Mr. Goldberg, I have come to the conclusion that Hagel may just be the right man for the job, vis a vis Israel. Since the president is, evidently, a man who prefers not to engage in verbal confrontations and Bibi, who is something of a misogynist brushes off criticism from such as Hillary Clinton and Angela Merkel, someone is needed who is prepared to figuratively punch him in the nose and Mr. Hagel appears to be that sort of person. This is particularly true because of the rise of an overtly racist party in Israel which may win as many as 15 seats in the Knesset in the elections this month. Someone has to forcibly tell Bibi that forming a coalition with that party will be quite unhelpful to future relations between Israel and the US.

  2. gshelley says

    When Romney was going after Obama because he didn’t meet with the Israeli premier when he was in the US, it occurred to me that he was basically criticizing the president for not dropping everything and staying in Washington to be at the beck and call of a foreign leader, and no one, from either side, seemed to see anything wrong with this attitude.

  3. sosw says

    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.

    Somewhat OT but I find it curious that not only do quite a few people in the US consider such an exceptionally powerful executive branch normal (not saying Mano here does in any way other than the above), but some think that the US president does (or should) have essentially dictatorial powers with narrow niches carved for the legislature and judiciary.

    To someone like myself always having lived under parliamentary systems with considerably weaker executive branches, that seems almost alien.

    Perhaps it’s the combination of the head of government and head of state in the same position (compared to parliamentary systems where those would often be the prime minister and president/monarch, respectively) or maybe another example of the winner-takes-all mentality (proportional representation would likely be considered outright heresy).

    That said I know too little about Hagel (not to mention potential alternatives) to base my opinion on much more than what is reported here, but it certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing if US policy toward Israel could at least be a topic to be subjected to serious discussion rather than a taboo subject, although I’m not sure whether a single cabinet member could make that happen unless they had broader support within the administration.

  4. lorn says

    I suspect that the GOP is objecting because:
    1) They can. Obduracy, and blaming everything, including the results of their own delay tactics, on Obama is still one of their main tactics.

    2) Hagel is a soldier and pragmatists. He knows that the defense budget could be cut in half and the sobering effects of the cuts would actually benefit the national defense. We could cut the number of general grade officers. Consolidate intelligence functions across branches. Eliminate redundancy and focus on functionality. And, in a big way, stop trying to fight the wars we thought were going to happen fifty years ago against the USSR.

  5. slc1 says

    In fairness, the president also declined to meet with Egyptian President Morsi, who is, apparently, also on his shit list.

  6. slc1 says

    Actually, it is my suspicion that Hagel’s position vis a vis Israel is a smokescreen for the Rethuglicans. Their real bitch is that he did not support Dubya on the Iraq adventure after initially voting to authorize it and he failed to support Rmoney in the recent election.

  7. brucegee1962 says

    I find the GOP resistance to Hagel to be fairly difficult to fathom. Just last two weeks ago, we were all treated to the spectacal of Speaker Boehner throwing out a spurious and un-passable “Plan B,” then ending up with egg all over his face when the rank and file members wouldn’t go for it. Now we see them attacking someone they were lauding as an elder statesman a few months ago.

    For a long time the Democrats have been saying the term “Republican Principles” is an oxymoron. But now it’s starting to trickle down to the American people that these guys really don’t have any unifying philosophy, loyalty, or vision for the country. A party that’s on the outs needs to pull together and speak with unity, and they’re doing the precise opposite. Why should anyone listen to anything they say?

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