Chuck Hagel has always defied categorization, which is one reason I’ve liked and respected him.
Of course, that also explains why Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary faces opposition from elements of both political parties. Washington likes people who can be “counted on,” meaning that they adhere to the brightly defined lines that are used to distinguish “us” from “them.” People such as Hagel, who pay little attention to such lines, are viewed with suspicion and distrust by some.
In Hagel’s case, he is Republican, but according to conservatives not a “real” Republican. He is a war veteran who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam as an enlisted Army infantryman, but his thoughts on foreign policy reveal a sophisticated doubt about the usefulness of war. Although he voted in favor of the invasion of Iraq, he quickly became a harsh critic of the conduct of that war. Most of all, Hagel is a questioner by nature, and he is more willing to follow where the answers lead him than are most in the nation’s Capitol.
I strongly disagree with Hagel on some points, particularly on his willingness to defer to intelligence and law enforcement when constitutional rights supposedly conflict with national security concerns. Back in the late ’90s, Hagel also publicly opposed the nomination of James Hormel as a U.S. ambassador on the grounds that Hormel was “”openly, aggressively gay.”
Those words reflected a depth of homophobia that did not speak well of Hagel. But it is also true that the country as a whole has moved a long way on gay rights in the past two decades, and if Hagel has moved along with it, as he now claims, that should not disqualify him from high service.
On the other hand, the claim by some that Hagel is somehow anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic because he has been willing to question the decisions of Israeli political leadership is and always has been nonsense. Nothing that Hagel has said or done on such issues places him outside the mainstream in this country or even in Israel itself, and certainly do not disqualify him from service as U.S. defense secretary.
Hagel’s nomination comes at an important point in this nation’s military and foreign-policy history. The world has changed; our relative position in the world has changed as well. But those changes are not yet reflected in our defense structure, policy and ideology. By his background, intellect and questioning nature, Hagel is well-suited to that role.
Politically speaking, the Hagel nomination also plays into the meta-narrative that the White House appears to be spinning these days. By nominating a Republican ex-senator to a top Cabinet position, Obama can claim credit for a gesture of bipartisanship. To the degree that Senate Republicans erupt in outrage, attempting to bar their former colleague from service on grounds of being insufficiently conservative, they cement their image as extremists unwilling to compromise. So it will be interesting to watch how they play this.
– Jay Bookman