NEW YORK — The nomination fight over former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel has split the Washington establishment into shrill camps.
Hagel has been called anti-gay, anti-Semitic and weak in the face of America’s most implacable enemies. His supporters have labeled opposition to him, some of which stemmed from gay rights groups and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, as a “Likud” and “neocon” led witch-hunt that is disloyal to America.
Less noticed in the righteous campaigning on both sides is the simple fact that Hagel brought much of the criticism on himself. As his supporters never tire of pointing out, he has a long history of “honest” and “courageous” stances. What makes these stances courageous, of course, is that they were in marked opposition to the views of his party and, often, of the prevailing views of American voters.
Hagel made a name for himself on the national stage blasting Bush’s Iraq policies, has suggested he was a true Republican while most fellow Republicans were not, suggested Israel advocates (not the American people who overwhelmingly support Israel, but a handful of Washington petition-drafters) were terrifying politicians into toeing the line on objectionable Israeli policies, and on and on.
And while his past rhetoric generated some of the widespread opposition he is encountering today, many in Washington actually fear what his nomination means for the future. His appointment has been presented — by the administration, no less — as a signal that America’s global posture is being drawn down. America will be less willing, with Hagel among its top policy making leaders, to engage in military showdowns than it was in the past.
Speaking of American military commitments abroad, Tommy Vietor, the White House national security spokesman, has said Hagel “was talking about how force needs to be used as a last resort when diplomacy is exhausted. That is exactly the president’s view.”
When it came to the expected Afghan drawdown in 2014, Vietor added that Hagel’s role will be to counter resistance within the defense establishment to troop reductions.
Both his policy views and his past political behavior have not endeared Hagel to the very people who will now vote on his nomination: members of the US Senate.
There is a saying in Israel: You can’t dance at two weddings at the same time. While Hagel’s courage over the years in adopting unpopular positions may be admirable, it does not follow that his nomination should be immune from challenges driven by those very positions and statements. What makes his outspokenness “courageous” is the fact that it carries with it political consequences, and it is strange to expect that it could have been otherwise.
As secretary of defense, of course, those consequences will not be borne by the man, but by the country.
One obvious example is Iran. Hagel has expressed reservations about the policy, repeatedly confirmed by Obama as his own, of preventing – not merely containing – an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Such public reservations, coupled with past statements opposing any military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities should it flout international demands and pursue a nuclear weapon, are insignificant when uttered by a lone senator. But they would send shockwaves through the Middle East if they were heard coming from the lips of the American secretary of defense.
It is widely accepted in the international community that by far the best way to avoid either a military confrontation with Iran or an Iranian nuclear weapon is to make certain that the regime in Teheran believes beyond any shadow of a doubt that its drive toward nuclear arms will be met with an unbearably painful international response.
If he wants to prevent an Iranian nuke, one that would leave the global nonproliferation regime largely meaningless, likely trigger a regional nuclear arms race in the Middle East, and put groups like Hezbollah and Hamas under an umbrella — if not actually in possession — of a nuclear weapon, Chuck Hagel will have to convincingly express to the Iranians that a military strike is emphatically on the table.
It may be worth noting that an Israeli strike, too — messier and less effective than anything the US could pull off — becomes more likely if America is seen taking the military option off the table.
Hagel’s past outspokenness is already a liability in his new position, as regional powers now frantically consume every word he has ever uttered or written in an attempt to gauge what the likely new chief executive of the most powerful military in the Middle East thinks – and will be telling the president – about the region.
If he is confirmed by the Senate and takes the helm at the Pentagon, one of Chuck Hagel’s first duties will no doubt be to communicate to America’s allies in the region, whether Saudi, Israeli, Jordanian or Egyptian, that his appointment does not signal any weakening in America’s resolve or footprint in the face of Iran.
And once he concludes that round of reassurances, Hagel will likely, at long last, stop talking, at least until such time as his “refreshing candor,” to quote one pundit, no longer has the power to throw the entire edifice of regional security into chaos.
If the nomination fight itself did not drive the lesson home, surely the awesome responsibilities of the Defense Department will do so: Silence is not always a sign of cowardice. Sometimes, it is the height of wisdom.