President Barack Obama has nominated former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to serve as Secretary of Defense. The nomination has proven surprisingly controversial considering that Hagel is a former Republican senator.
Why are Republicans opposed to their fellow partisan? Why might some Democrats oppose him too? Is Hagel a good choice for Defense, or not? Here are five facts about him to help you make up your mind.
1. Hagel Has a Military Background, But He Isn’t In Favor of Military Adventurism
Hagel served in the Army during the Vietnam War as a sergeant and infantry squad leader. His service was distinguished, earning him two purple hearts and an Army commendation medal.
While in the senate, Hagel voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq, but later became a vocal critic of the war. By 2005, Hagel was openly criticizing the Bush Administration’s handling of the conflict, comparing the war to Vietnam. Hagel favored ending the Iraq War, and favors an end to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Hagel has said of both wars, “We cannot view U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan through a lens that sees only ‘winning’ or ‘losing,’ Iraq and Afghanistan are not America’s to win or lose.”
2. Hagel Has Upset Israel
Hagel has been critical of some of Israel’s policies, and that criticism has gotten him in some trouble. In a 2008 book by Aaron David Miller, Hagel is quoted as saying, “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. But I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”
Had that quote been uttered about another country, it probably would go unnoticed — few would fault a senator for saying she wasn’t a French senator. Still, Hagel’s quote, along with his general opposition to neoconservatism, has been seized upon as proof that the former Nebraska senator is an anti-Semite.
Is he? The evidence appears fairly thin. Hagel has written that Israel’s status of a Jewish country should be non-negotiable in any peace settlement, and has said that Israel is and should remain an American ally.
Still, he’s been criticized for not being unreservedly pro-Israel; in his writing, he says, “there will always be a special and historic bond with Israel, exemplified by our continued commitment to Israelís defense. But this commitment cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships.”
Hagel has expressed serious skepticism of the use of force against Iran, saying while a senator that “a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option.”
This opposition to American adventurism, and rejection of Israel-right-or-wrong thinking, has earned him the enmity of the neocons, led by reliably wrong pundit Bill Kristol.
Hagel certainly doesn’t seem anti-Semitic, but he does appear to be skeptical of the foreign policy advocated by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In that, he’s joined by most Jewish Americans. His use of the term “Jewish lobby” was unfortunate, but most of the claims of anti-Semitism appear to come from those who’ve confused being opposed to Likud with being opposed to the Jewish faith. J Street, a Jewish, center-left Israeli advocacy group, is openly supporting Hagel’s nomination; it seems unlikely they’d support a true anti-Semite.
3. Hagel Has An Unfortunate History On Civil Rights for LGBTs…
Chuck Hagel has made some unfortunate decisions regarding the expansion of civil rights for LGBT individuals. Perhaps none was more reprehensible than his 1998 opposition to the confirmation of James Hormel as Ambassador to Luxembourg. At the time, Hagel said that Hormel, who is openly gay, was not merely no longer in the closet, but was “openly, aggressively gay.” What this meant was not exactly clear, other than that gay people were offensive as long as they dared to be honest about it.
Hagel also opposed the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and opposed a 2005 ruling that banning same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.
Needless to say, it’s disconcerting to see a Democrat appoint a Defense Secretary who has been on the wrong side of history with regard to civil rights, and that has led some Democrats, including former Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., to criticize Hagel as a potential nominee.
4. …but he has apologized for those positions.
Still, Hagel has one significant defense for his positions on LGBT rights: he has evolved, like many people in the country.
Hagel has apologized for his opposition to Hormel’s nomination, and has said he thinks Washington was right to end DADT, and will work to further implement it.
Will that be enough to placate those who support full equality for all Americans? Perhaps, perhaps not. Hagel, after all, wasn’t moved to apologize until after he was under consideration for Defense Secretary; one can read this cynically, and think that Hagel’s change of heart was mostly about a potential change in jobs.†Of course, one can also note that the nation as a whole has swung significantly on LGBT rights over the past twenty years; DADT was implemented by Democratic President Bill Clinton, and was, at the time, seen as an improvement. It’s reasonable to think that Hagel has evolved on civil rights just as the country has.
Whatever you think of Hagel’s apoplogy, he has at least won over one of his opponents. While Barney Frank still says he’s not thrilled with Hagel’s nomination, he now supports his confirmation.
“As much as I regret what Hagel said, and resent what he said, the question now is going to be Afghanistan and scaling back the military,” said Frank in an interview with the Boston Globe. “With the attack coming out of the right, I hope he gets confirmed.”
5. Hagel Was a Senator — That Might Not Protect Him (But It Probably Will)
The decision to confirm Hagel will be up to the Senate, and while Democrats hold a majority in the body, his confirmation is not assured; Former Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, was rejected by the Senate as a possible Secretary of Defense in 1989, over allegations of womanizing and possible alcoholism.
Still, Hagel’s time in the Senate will make it hard for Republicans to reject him. While some have questioned whether some Democrats like Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., might vote against Hagel based on his perceived anti-Semitic statements, it seems unlikely that they’d vote against Obama’s nominee when push came to shove. As for LGBT opposition, Frank’s statement appears likely to carry the day — Hagel’s past is a negative, but now that he’s the nominee, he’ll get Democratic support.
That means that while Republicans can filibuster Hagel’s nomination, they’re ultimately fighting a losing battle, especially given that Hagel has a personal working relationship with a number of his former colleagues. It’s hard to imagine that Hagel won’t find five Republicans willing to vote for him.
The confirmation hearings of Hagel will be full of heat, as the right attempts to paint him as anti-Semitic and insufficiently in favor of war with Iran. Still, unless new evidence surfaces, it seems unlikely that Hagel’s nomination will fail.
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