Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb) likes to give out biographies of President Dwight D. Eisenhower as gifts. Both men can be seen as moderate Republicans – a vanishing breed amid the domestic divisiveness of America today.
That doesn’t necessarily mean moderation will be the keynote in President Barack Obama’s nomination of Hagel to be Secretary of Defense. Both supporters and detractors of the nomination have strong views, and they have less to do with Hagel himself than may seem obvious. As Aaron Miller wrote in the Washington Post, the opposition isn’t really about Hagel. It’s about Obama.
Hagel, 66, is the first enlisted veteran to be named to head the Pentagon. He’s a combat-wounded Vietnam infantryman and former Department of Veterans Affairs worker. From 1987 to 1990, he was head of the USO, which supports the well being of U.S. military members around the world and is chartered by the U.S. government but funded privately. Hagel has run large organizations as a private-sector pioneer in cell phone technology and showed concern for individual constituents as a senator from 1997 to 2009. He initially supported U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003 but opposed the surge of U.S. forces that followed in 2007.
Few people are prepared to say they dislike Hagel. He has a stern side but is widely seen as personable and accessible, even by critics of his nomination.
Hagel has detractors on both ends of the spectrum – from the left, for a comment made about a gay ambassadorial nominee that sounds today more homophobic than it did when made 14 years ago (and for which he later apologized); and from the right, including from Senate colleagues, for allegedly being soft on Iran and weak in his support of Israel.
Wrote Elizabeth Nicholas at the Huffington Post, “The fight over Hagel’s nomination is a tawdry distraction from our real challenges, like sustainably paying for Medicare and safeguarding against cyberattacks that could debilitate our grids.” The biggest objection to Hagel seems to be that he might preside over a shrinking U.S. military, yet some shrinkage is inevitable in the budget climate that looms ahead – and key decisions about Iran, Israel and the size and shape of the military will come from the White House, especially given Obama’s record as a “hands on” commander-in-chief. As Defense Secretary, Hagel would implement crucial policy decisions, not make them.
The Constitution prescribes that the Senate give its “advice and consent” to key presidential appointments, including all cabinet appointments. But in modern times, a knock down, drag-out confirmation fight on the Senate floor, or even in committee, has been a rare phenomenon. Even in the toxic political climate of today, having served in the Senate usually boosts a nominee’s prospects of winning the upper body’s approval, and that is the case with the choice of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) to head the State Department.
Many Americans believe a president should have wide latitude to choose his key advisors. Regardless who sits in the top slot in the Pentagon, issues of Iran, Israel and defense spending will continue to roil. What remains to be seen is whether the Obama administration has made a grave miscalculation of the domestic political forces arrayed against it or whether Chuck Hagel will get his chance to run the nation’s defense establishment.