Hagel’s dialectic

Chuck Hagel’s willingness to break from conventional, partisan positions makes him a good choice for secretary of defense

As President Barack Obama has begun his second term, he has been working toward reforming his cabinet after several first-term members have stepped down. Some candidates he’s tapped, such as John Kerry for secretary of state, have had relatively smooth confirmation proceedings. Others have not. Notable among the latter group is Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska who has been nominated for secretary of defense. Though at first glance Hagel would seem like a good pick for both parties, he has faced significant criticism from the right throughout his confirmation. Republicans point to controversial positions he has held in the past on Iran, Iraq, Israel, nuclear disarmament and more as proof Hagel is a poor choice for the job. He did not help himself by appearing lifeless in his confirmation hearing. Nevertheless, Hagel is the best pick Obama has made so far for his new cabinet.

Hagel has received a lot of criticism for controversial interviews and statements in his past. He has opposed unilateral sanctions against Iran and the troop surge in Iraq, accused the Pentagon of spending too much money, claimed the Israel lobby intimidates lawmakers and has not contradicted statements that Israel has committed war crimes and that the United States has been a “bully.” Although none of these positions are popular, many run counter to decades of GOP foreign policy. All of them, however, speak to the fact that Hagel is unafraid to voice his honest opinion without politics and party loyalty clouding his judgement.

It is easy to disagree with Hagel but impossible to doubt that he has been unafraid to speak his mind and develop complex approaches to policy issues most lawmakers approach in cookie-cutter fashion. This type of honesty makes him a great candidate for secretary of defense, a position that demands flexibility when confronting new situations. If Hagel is willing to speak his mind and differ from his own party, he will certainly not be afraid to disagree with the president when important foreign policy decisions need to be made. The presence of dissenting opinions in the Situation Room will help keep de facto party positions on both sides from dominating policy and will help maintain accountability in the Department of Defense.

And though Hagel’s positions may be unpopular, that does not make them invalid. He often raises important points that most lawmakers are afraid to confront because of political pressure. He opposed the surge in Iraq, which was widely considered to be successful, mostly because he recognized that Iraq was a costly, ill-advised and unnecessary war. He opposes unilateral sanctions against Iran because he believes diplomacy is the best solution. His statements on Iran are often questionable; for example, he refused to define the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. Iran’s eagerness for his confirmation is certainly not a positive sign. But maybe having a secretary of defense with a history of open-mindedness when it comes to Iran is what the executive needs to make substantial progress in diplomatic talks.

Hagel is willing to face the fact that the Pentagon’s budget is far too large, despite that any cuts in defense spending can be political suicide for a GOP lawmaker. Defense accounts for about 25 percent of federal spending, and Hagel recognizes modern military strategies do not require such an immense amount of money.

Hagel has moved away from his critical statements about the Israel lobby and an interview where he appeared sympathetic to the idea that America misuses its power and Israel is guilty of war crimes. But all those moments show is that Hagel is willing to listen respectfully to opposing ideas and respond thoughtfully rather than bombastically like most politicians. His willingness to attack the Israel lobby also proves he is not attached to past policy but rather is willing to question the status quo. The U.S. has given Israel a carte blanche for decades. Though support for Israel is crucial, it cannot be blind, which Hagel recognizes. All of the aforementioned positions are provocative and politically charged, but all of them are legitimate. Hagel will make sure these positions are heard and that politics does not prevent officials from discussing valid policy options.

Hagel is certainly not the ideal candidate to take through a confirmation process. He has often appeared unqualified when facing tough questions from GOP lawmakers and has struggled to articulate strong defenses for many of his controversial opinions. His unwillingness to play politics ensures he will suffer in the press, and his attempts at answering questions with nuance and willingness to acknowledge past mistakes can make him appear weak. But these same traits make him an ideal candidate for a cabinet position. A brutally honest, non-political secretary of defense who is willing to take stands on important issues would be a great asset to the United States.

Forrest Brown’s columns appear Thursdays in The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at f.brown@cavalierdaily.com.

related stories