In 2006, I interviewed then-Sen. Hagel for a book I was writing on U.S. policy toward the Arab-Israeli negotiations. Quotes from that interview, such as his comment that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” have been used by his detractors to argue that he is hostile toward Israel.
By congressional standards, Hagel is quite independent on Israel. He believes in a special U.S.-Israel relationship but not one in which the United States accepts Israeli actions uncritically. And he isn’t as emotionally connected to Israel as some of his former colleagues in Congress – such as Rep. John Lewis of Georgia or Sen. Mark Kirk from Illinois – are. But in our interview, his writings and his voting record on military aid to Israel, Hagel has been clear that Israel is a small, democratic ally in a dangerous neighborhood worthy of support.
As for Hagel’s observation about the Jewish lobby, it was an impolitic description; support for Israel rests on millions of Christians, too. But as anyone who’s lived in Washington, D.C., or followed U.S.-Israeli politics knows, Hagel was just stating the obvious. The pro-Israel community and lobby have a strong voice, though hardly a veto over U.S. policy. Members of Congress also know how powerful the pro-Israel community is – they’re just not willing to admit it publicly, let alone challenge it. Hagel is one of the few who does.
Was Donald Rumsfeld? Nobody had a better resume for the position: a former member of Congress and defense secretary under Gerald Ford, with management expertise from his days in the private sector. Yet, as George W. Bush’s Pentagon chief, Rumsfeld helped conceive and direct a disastrous war in Iraq that cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars and has eroded American credibility to this day.
What matters isn’t just credentials, but a candidate’s judgment and discretion. We need a defense secretary who be tough and realistic about when, how and why America projects its military power abroad. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Republican secretary of war, Henry Stimson, Hagel believes in bipartisan foreign policy; like Robert Gates, he is an analyst and a skeptic. And that’s what we need today – pragmatists and doubters, not ideologues.
Hagel has management experience: He was deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration under President Reagan and chief executive of the USO in the late 1980s. And he has foreign policy and intelligence credentials: He’s co-chairman of the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board and a member of the defense secretary’s Policy Advisory Board.
Further, Hagel – who would be the first enlisted, decorated combat veteran to run the Pentagon – personally understands the costs of war. Having been wounded in combat, he would be uniquely committed to the well-being of U.S. troops. This would give Hagel real authority to run the Pentagon and deal with the generals. As Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, recently put it: “Hagel would run the Defense Department; it would not run him.”
In this administration, nobody is, except the president. Obama is the most controlling foreign policy and national security president since Richard Nixon. He dominates, not delegates, foreign policy decisions. Hagel would manage the drawdown and extrication from Afghanistan. But Obama wouldn’t delegate much high policy to him.
Hagel’s 2009 comments urging the United States to engage with Hamas to moderate its behavior, his 2006 refusal to sign a letter pressing the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization and his opposition to unilateral sanctions on Iran have concerned many. These views are out of sync with U.S. policy, but that wouldn’t matter much. Hagel wouldn’t have a say or influence in these matters.
Hagel’s doubts about using force against Iran would provide a contrarian view if and when Obama weighs whether to strike. But the big decisions will be the president’s call.
Hagel is a realist, not a crusader. And he’s certainly not a pacifist. He takes enormous pride in the U.S. military. He voted for the Iraq War in 2002 but later turned against it, and he opposed the 2007 troop surge. He clearly is wary of getting involved in military adventures abroad in which the United States might end up owning faraway places that it can’t control, let alone fix (see Syria). This isn’t being soft, it’s being smart. On Iran, Hagel hasn’t ruled out the use of force, but he believes in going to great lengths to avoid it.
As for reducing the defense budget, any new Pentagon chief will face a decision – not whether to cut, but by how much. Unlike Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was reluctant to cut, Hagel is on record saying that the Pentagon should be pared down. But it’s a complex process with many oars in the water, not just the defense secretary’s. And, sequestration notwithstanding, no one wants to or would be able to gut the military.
Much of the opposition is based on Hagel’s persona and the positions he’s taken. But it goes deeper. It’s really about opposition to Obama.
Opposing Hagel is a way for Republicans to remind the president not to take them for granted. He can’t have his way without taking their views into account on the debt ceiling, gun control and even national security appointments – an area traditionally regarded as presidential purview. As we saw with Susan Rice, the president’s first choice for secretary of state, who took herself out of the running because of congressional pressure, Republican push-back has influenced Obama.
Attacking Hagel also is a chance for conservative Republicans to reassert their views on foreign policy, such as American exceptionalism, and to stand up for U.S. values and intervention abroad, which they think Obama has abandoned.
Finally, the hammering of Hagel on Israel partly reflects the pro-Israel community’s belief that, like his nominee, Obama is too soft on Iran and too tough on Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. When Hagel appears before the Senate, it’s Obama’s policies that will be up for debate just as much as his nominee.