Commentary Magazine


WaPo Editorial Board: Hagel Wrong for Defense

The Washington Post editorial board came out against Chuck Hagel’s potential nomination for secretary of defense this morning, citing his “near the fringe” views on Iran and defense spending: 

But Mr. Hagel has elsewhere expressed strong skepticism about the use of force.

We share that skepticism — but we also understand that, during the next year or two, Mr. Obama may be forced to contemplate military action if Iran refuses to negotiate or halt its uranium-enrichment program. He will need a defense secretary ready to support and effectively implement such a decision. Perhaps Mr. Hagel would do so; perhaps he would also, if installed at the Pentagon, take a different view of defense spending. (Mr. Hagel declined through a spokesman to speak to us about his views.)

What’s certain is that Mr. Obama has available other possible nominees who are considerably closer to the mainstream and to the president’s first-term policies. Former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy, for example, is a seasoned policymaker who understands how to manage the Pentagon bureaucracy and where responsible cuts can be made. She would bring welcome diversity as the nation’s first female defense secretary.

Not only does Obama have better options than Hagel, he has options that would be easier to confirm. Someone like Flournoy would have no problem. While Hagel could make it through, it would be a messy fight that would highlight issues Obama is already seen as weak on–particularly his commitment to Israel and seriousness on Iran.

And while Hagel is a former member of the Senate club, he would be pressed on comments he’s made that are highly embarrassing for Obama, including a reference to the “Jewish lobby” intimidating members of Congress. Michael Warren reports that Lindsey Graham and John McCain, both members of the committee that would hold the defense secretary hearings, would question Hagel on these comments if he’s nominated:

Asked about Hagel’s 2008 statement that the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people here [in Washington, D.C.],” South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said Hagel will “have to answer for that comment” if he is nominated. 

“And he’ll have to answer about why he thought it was a good idea to directly negotiate with Hamas and why he objected to the European Union declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization,” continued Graham, a member of the Armed Services committee. “I think he’ll have to answer all those questions.” …

John McCain of Arizona said he “strongly disagree[s]” with Hagel’s comments on the “Jewish lobby.”

“I know of no ‘Jewish lobby,’” McCain said. “I know that there’s strong support for Israel here. I know of no ‘Jewish lobby.’ I hope he would identify who that is.”

There is a solid case against nominating Hagel, but not a solid case for choosing him over another option. Someone like Flournoy would still be compatible with Obama ideologically, but she would come with far less baggage.