Presidents define themselves in large measure by the fights they pick, especially if these fights create tension with members of their own party or base. By nominating Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense, President Obama has picked a fight that most would consider unnecessary, and that fight puts him in tension with some Democratic Senators and a portion of his base.
He thus defines himself. Not as a president who wants to tilt away from Israel and away from confrontation with Iran; Obama can (and I would argue has) defined himself that way without nominating Hagel. Rather, he defines himself as wanting publicly to stick it to Israel and its strongest U.S. supporters – to rub their faces in his redirection of U.S. policy. As Lindsey Graham says, this is an “in your face” nomination.
Obama deepest desire is to be transformational. Any U.S. president can part company with Israel on important matters, Hagel’s claims about the power of the “Jewish lobby” notwithstanding. George H.W. Bush did it.
But Bush did not transform America’s relationship with Israel; nor is there any evidence that he wanted to. Obama wants to, and seems to believe he can accomplish this by winning a showdown with the dreaded “Jewish lobby.”
Accordingly, nominating a Defense Secretary who merely agrees with Obama about Israel and Iran would not have been sufficient. Obama, it appears, needed to nominate Hagel.
By doing so, he guarantees a bruising struggle. Jennifer Rubin probably exaggerates, but not by much, when she predicts that the coming battle “will potentially suck up much of the oxygen in the Senate, put other issues like gun control on hold and threaten to become the blockbuster hearing of the Obama presidency as the Judge Robert Bork hearing was in the Reagan administration.”
But that struggle is the point of the nomination, not a reason for looking elsewhere, to pros like Ashton Carter or Michele Flournoy or to politicians who, like Hagel, opposed the war in Iraq and think the U.S. should tilt away from Israel. (Hagel, it should be remembered, voted for the war in Iraq).
This is a fight Obama believes he needed to pick. The fact that he has picked it will help define the second term of his presidency.