Chuck Hagel’s nomination and the clarity it would bring

The word is that President Obama is set to nominate Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Reportedly, the nomination could come as early as Monday.

Hagel’s nomination would be a victory for clarity. As has widely been observed, Hagel has no natural constituency, except perhaps for those who want a foreign and defense policy that is tougher on Israel and softer on Iran. Unfortunately, as I have observed, Obama belongs to that constituency.

Hence, the clarity his nomination would bring. Israel would be clear that Obama views the Jewish state with hostility. Iran would be clear that it has nothing serious to fear from the Obama administration.

Actually, these are the lessons of the past four years. But, if the rumors about Hagel are true, they are about to be driven home.

Nothing else can explain this odd nomination. Team Obama tried to couch it as a bipartisan act, inasmuch as Hagel was a Republican Senator. But key Republican Senators have made it clear that they don’t want Hagel at the Pentagon. Key Democrats have also failed to express enthusiasm over that prospect. Even Barney Frank opposes Hagel. If there’s a bipartisan consensus around Hagel, it’s that Obama should nominate someone else.

Under these circumstances, nominating Hagel would make sense only if he brought something special to the table. And he does — his animus towards Israel and his desire to appease Iran, views that fall well outside the foreign policy and defense mainstream from which Defense Secretaries normally are selected.

Certainly, there is nothing else special about Hagel. His Senate career was distinguished only by grandstanding and nastiness. As Bill Kristol says:

His backers can cite no significant legislation for which Hagel was responsible in his two terms in the Senate. They can quote no memorable speeches that Hagel delivered and can cite no profound passages from the book he authored. They can summarize no perceptive Hagelian analysis of defense or foreign policy, and can appeal to no acts of management or leadership by the man they’d have as our next secretary of defense.

The fact is that those legislative achievements, intellectual insights, or management triumphs don’t exist. A long and comprehensive history of the Senate during Chuck Hagel’s tenure there could be written that would barely mention him. A long and comprehensive account of American foreign and defense policy in the last thirty years would hardly note his existence.

It was to be expected that, in a second term, Obama would show more clearly his true colors. In fact, he promised the Russians to do so.

And there is something to be said for the kind of clarity Hagel’s selection will bring. Perhaps with Israel shedding the last of its illusions about Obama’s willingness to stop Iran from obtaining nukes it will become more likely to attack Iran, as Alan Dershowitz believes. Perhaps that would be a good development; perhaps not.

But the world is a dangerous place. And a well-run Pentagon headed by a Secretary who provides the White House with sound advice helps us cope with the danger. A Pentagon headed by a grandstander whose biases are contrary to our security interests will, in the end, only make the world more dangerous.


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