If Chuck Hagel is nominated by President Obama to serve as Secretary of Defense, there will be at least three compelling arguments in his favor. He served with distinction in the military and would – like Secretary of State nominee John Kerry – bring a veteran’s perspective to his post. He has adopted and articulated a sane perspective on the grave foreign policy blunders whose consequences still haunt the nation, including the Iraq and Vietnam wars. And as we have learned ever since his nomination was first floated, he has made all the right (and right-wing) enemies.
Hagel is a former Republican senator from Nebraska, which means that his voting record was mostly conservative and that he has probably said many things that might offend liberal Democrats. (Already he has felt obliged to apologize for a nasty remark he once made in reaction to President Clinton’s nomination of James Hormel as the first openly gay US ambassador.) He is a devout Catholic and an opponent of abortion rights, and has received poor ratings in the past from the NAACP, the ACLU and other liberal organizations.
But as a potential nominee for Secretary of Defense, Hagel is coming under far heavier fire so far from the right – where he is being widely smeared as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic – than from the left. The neoconservatives and their allies on the religious right cannot forgive Hagel for turning against the Iraq war and the Bush administration – a stance that reflected his opposition to reckless warfare and his adoption of a realistic internationalism. They dislike Hagel as well for his refusal to endorse Israel’s expansion of West Bank settlements and other actions that undermine the Mideast peace process; for his reluctance to promote war with Iran; and for his critical eye on Pentagon misspending and waste.
In reality, those are all valid reasons to support him. It is hard to believe that the opinions of the same people who assured us that Iraq would be a free and easy “cakewalk” are today accorded any attention whatsoever, thousands of lives and trillions of dollars later.
Yet it is equally important to emphasize that the charge of anti-Semitism against Hagel is groundless and shames those who have uttered this canard. Among those who have forthrightly denounced it are Jon Soltz, a Jewish army veteran who served two tours in Iraq and now heads Vote Vets; and Jeffrey Goldberg, the Atlantic magazine blogger on Mideast affairs who once served in the Israel Defense Forces. (They are unlike many of Hagel’s critics, who might fairly be characterized as “chickenhawks.”)