Not even being a Republican can protect an Obama nominee from attack by the GOP. Even before the President officially named Nebraska’s former Senator Chuck Hagel on Monday as his nominee for Secretary of Defense, Hagel’s fellow Republicans still serving in the Senate were sharpening their knives.
On Sunday, Senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina went on CNN’s “State of the Union” program to state his main objection:
“This is an in-your-face nomination of the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel.”
The objection refers to a comment that Hagel made during an interview in 2006 when he referred to the “Jewish lobby” rather than the Israeli lobby, but he went on to say:
“I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”
Hagel seems more in touch with the American public than Graham and the other Congressional conservatives; Americans are increasingly willing to question Congress’s unconditional love affair with Israel. And, ironically, a group called the American Jewish Committee (Jewish, not Israeli) is among the loudest voices objecting to the nomination.
Aaron David Miller, the author and former Mideast peace negotiator who conducted the 2006 interview, labelled the use of the “Jewish lobby” comment to characterize Hagel as anti-Semitic as “shameful and scurrilous.” In that same interview, Hagel spoke of the “shared values and the importance of Israeli security.”
On “Fox News Sunday”, analyst Brit Hume called the nomination “peculiar” because Hagel doesn’t have “a particularly distinguished record.” Oh, really? Part of the brilliance of Obama in making this choice is that not only is he making an appeal for bipartisanship, but also, the nominee has a long history almost tailor-made to fit the Republican profile. He’s a decorated war hero with two Purple Hearts who still carries shrapnel in his body from his service in Vietnam; a former businessman who became a multi-millionaire after founding Vanguard Cellular; a two-term Senator from red state Nebraska (1997-2009); the co-chairperson of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board since 2009.
As an anonymous administration official said, it’s likely that:
“At the end of the day, Republicans will support a decorated war hero who was their colleague for 12 years and has critical experience on veterans’ issues. It would be hard to explain a no vote just because he bucked his party on Iraq, a war most Americans think was a disaster.”
Therein lies the rub for the GOP. Chuck Hagel is an independent thinker. As a senator, he voted in line with much of the GOP program: aid to Israel, going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, supporting the Patriot’s Act. However, he soon became disillusioned with the way the wars were being conducted and began speaking out against much of George W. Bush’s foreign policy. He felt that the U.S. had lost its way in the war and was overestimating its ability to change Iraqi society — views that looked increasingly valid as events unfolded. In addition, he accompanied candidate Obama on a six-day trip to the Middle East in 2008, during the presidential campaign. Subsequently, when Republican candidate John McCain criticized the trip as political, Hagel defended Obama, saying McCain was “on thin ground” in trying to question Obama’s patriotism.
Not that Hagel is a yes-man to the President. He opposes using unilateral sanctions to try and force a country’s leadership to behave the way the U.S. wants it to, as we are doing with Iran. Instead, he favors negotiation. Philip D. Zelikow, fellow member on the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, said:
“The president wants someone whose judgment he respects on the big questions of war and peace.”
The nominee’s views on these were greatly shaped by his experience in Vietnam. In a recent interview, he said,
“I’m not a pacifist. I believe in using force, but only after a very careful decision-making process … I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.”
In one last desperate effort, some of Hagel’s critics are also trying to arouse opposition to his nomination on the left. They point to a comment he made in 1998 when he criticized a Clinton choice for ambassador to Luxembourg by calling the man, “openly, aggressively gay.” He has apologized for the remark and emphasized his support for gay men and women serving openly in the military.
In the end, Republicans are going to be reminded of the sentiment expressed by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell when Hagel left the Senate four years ago. He said then that Hagel had a “clear voice and stature on national security and foreign policy.” The most McConnell is willing to say now is:
“I think he ought to be given a fair hearing, like any other nominee, and he will be.”
May the fairness part be so. Forgive me, however, if I’m cynical about whether any other Obama nominee has ever been given the same.