Barack Obama nominated Republican ex-Senator Chuck Hagel to be his next Defense secretary today. The talk of this nomination has been lighting up the blogs and the Sunday morning chat shows, with various Republicans lining up to say they will have some tough questions for their former colleague, and even some antiwar activists backing Hagel’s nomination.
The story can seem a little bit confusing–often because of misleading recaps of Hagel’s career, which can make him sound like more like Dennis Kucinich than like the Republican who voted in favor of the Iraq War.
There are at least two things that might complicate Hagel’s chances. He is viewed as being slightly more critical of Israel than the average lawmaker; this is what has driven much of commentary about his possible nomination, and contributed to the sense that the Israel lobby AIPAC could work to scuttle his nomination. Hagel’s defenders point out that he’s been very supportive of foreign aid for Israel. On Iran, he seems to be skeptical about all-out war, though he co-authored a Washington Post op-ed (9/28/12) that argued, in part, that
a U.S. attack would demonstrate the country’s credibility as an ally to other nations in the region and would derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions for several years, providing space for other, potentially longer-term solutions. An attack would also make clear the United States’ full commitment to nonproliferation as other nations contemplate moves in that direction.
Hagel’s position on Iran sanctions has attracted criticism from the right for being too soft, but his position would seem to be that such efforts should be multilateral, and that the United States should be pursuing diplomatic relations as well.
It’s hard to understand how any of this could be considered particularly remarkable, but in the context of the United States Congress, these are apparently considered edgy policy positions.
But the real point is that there is a serious dispute among political elites, and thus the coverage often works hard to portray some kind of fundamental disagreement over what Hagel’s record. In the New York Times today (1/7/13), Scott Shane and David Sanger write:
Rather than turning to a defense technocrat, Mr. Obama decided on an independent politician whose service in Vietnam gave him a lifelong skepticism about the commitment of American lives in overseas conflicts. Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Hagel supported the war in Afghanistan but opposed the troop surge in Iraq under President George W. Bush.
The Nebraska Republican has also drawn fire for his outspoken opposition to the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq and the subsequent troop “surge” ordered by then-President George W. Bush in 2007, which has been credited with helping bring the war to a close.
Outspoken opponents of the Iraq War actually spoke out against it–and, if they were politicians, voted against it. Hagel voted in favor of the Iraq War–an inconvenient fact for the Times to put next to any claim about his “lifelong skepticism” when it comes to deploying U.S. troops. That fact came four paragraphs later–along with the qualified that the Iraq War resolution “passed overwhelmingly in October 2002.” So he’s a maverick, except for when he’s voting like everyone else. Sounds a lot like the other Republican maverick senator.
And Spencer Ackerman at Wired (1/6/13) points out that Hagel was kind of a maverick when it came to the 1999 NATO attacks on Serbia:
Nearly alone among senators, Hagel wanted to send in the Army.
“My goodness, we’ve got a butcher loose in the backyard of NATO,” an incredulous Hagel told Tim Russert on Meet the Press in April 1999.
It’s true that Hagel was more skeptical of the case for war in Iraq than the average Republican senator–which might be why some of them don’t much care for him.
In the seriously constrained foreign policy debate in elite politics and media, Chuck Hagel counts as a maverick. Proof of that came when the Washington Post (12/18/12) editorialized that Hagel would be the wrong pick:
Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term.
So the Republican Hagel is considered controversial, mostly among Republicans, but also to the likes of the Washington Post, which sees the mostly pro-war senator as being too far to the left.