So the Beltway world is a-twitter over the possibility that President Barack Obama will nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to be the next secretary of defense. This is a smart move that will gladden the hearts of sensible centrists, because Hagel is a principled, intelligent and patriotic American who believes that U.S. foreign and defense policy should serve the national interest. Here are my top five reasons why Hagel would be an excellent choice.
1. He’s a Republican realist. Like former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Hagel is a realist from the moderate wing of the Republican Party. He’s a staunch advocate of a strong defense, yet he’s clearly opposed to squandering U.S. power, prestige, and wealth on misbegotten crusades. He’s also not prone to threat-inflation, which makes him almost unique.
Hagel’s candidacy is also something of a no-lose appointment for Obama. By nominating a well-known Republican, Obama can again demonstrate a genuine commitment to bipartisanship. And if Republican senators try to torpedo the nomination of one of their own, it merely underscores how petty, extreme, and out of touch they are. Either way, Obama wins.
2. He thinks for himself. Unlike the usual Washington careerists with jelly for vertebrae and weathervanes for a conscience, Hagel is an independent thinker who wasn’t afraid to challenge his own party when it started heading off the rails under President George W. Bush. Hagel showed real courage when he said that the Bush administration was the “most arrogant and incompetent administration”; he was telling it like it was. Washington could use more plain speaking these days, especially where foreign and defense policy are concerned.
3. He knows the subject. Hagel is a decorated Army veteran who earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam, and he’s remained involved with defense matters throughout his public career. More importantly, he’s also well-versed on intelligence issues, having served on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board. In an era where DoD and the intelligence community increasingly intersect, that’s a valuable pedigree. And if his personal experience in war has made him less inclined to intervene than eager civilians with no military experience, so much the better.
4. He’s got good judgment. Although Hagel erred in voting for the Iraq war resolution in 2002, he figured out the war was a blunder a lot faster than most of his colleagues did. He wisely opposed the “surge” in 2006, and called instead for an immediate U.S. withdrawal. In terms of U.S. interests, getting out earlier would have saved us tens of billions of dollars and hundreds of soldiers’ lives, and it would have produced essentially the same outcome we have today.
5. He’s got the right enemies. Hagel does have one political liability: Unlike almost all of his former colleagues on Capitol Hill, he hasn’t been a complete doormat for the Israel lobby. In the summer of 2006, for example, he incurred the lobby’s wrath by calling for a joint cease-fire during Israel’s war with Hezbollah. Pressed by the lobby, Bush & Co. rejected this advice and let the war drag on, even though prolonging it made Hezbollah more popular in Lebanon and cost additional Israeli lives. Hagel has also been outspoken in calling for the United States to be more evenhanded in its handling of the peace process, and he’s generally thought to be skeptical about the use of military force against Iran. Needless to say, such positions are anathema to Israel’s hard-line supporters, some of whom are attacking Hagel’s suitability for secretary of defense. For the rest of us, however, Hagel’s views are not only sensible — they are in America and Israel’s best interest.
Having lost out on Susan Rice, Obama is unlikely to put forward a nominee he’s not willing to fight for or whom he thinks he might lose. So if Hagel is his pick to run the Pentagon, you can bet Obama will go to the mat for him. And what better way for Obama to pay back Benjamin Netanyahu for all the “cooperation” Obama received from him during the first term, as well as Netanyahu’s transparent attempt to tip the scale for Romney last fall?
For what it’s worth, I hope Obama nominates Hagel and that AIPAC and its allies go all-out to oppose him. If they lose, it might convince Obama to be less fearful of the lobby and encourage him to do what he thinks is best for the country (and incidentally, better for Israel) instead of toeing AIPAC’s line. But if the lobby takes Hagel down, it will provide even more evidence of its power, and the extent to which supine support for Israel has become a litmus test for high office in America.
Of course, it hard to know how effective a manager of the sprawling Pentagon bureaucracy Hagel would be. But he would inherit a seasoned team of deputies to help him handle the day-to-day administrative tasks, and he certainly knows how the sausage gets made in Washington. Obama reportedly has confidence in Hagel’s judgment, and could rely on him both for sage advice and political cover when needed. It is therefore easy to see why the president might find him an appealing pick. Equally important, he’d be an excellent choice for our country, which has a crying need for effective and principled leaders.
Stephen M. Walt is a professor of international relations at Harvard University. This column was provided via Foreign Policy.