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Do We Need a War Hero in the Pentagon?

The effort to sell Chuck Hagel to the Senate and the American public has begun, and so far it has consisted of two distinct lines of argument–both intended to silence dissent about his nomination to be secretary of defense. One involves an effort to discredit and discount the critique of Hagel’s longstanding equivocal attitude toward Israel and its friends that was coupled with a soft stance on Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah. This aspect of the battle over Hagel boils down to a campaign to redefine the term “pro-Israel” to mean someone who thinks he was courageous for supporting pressure on the Jewish state by standing up to the “Jewish lobby” while opposing sanctions or military action on the Iranian nuclear threat. Selling that line involves disingenuous pronouncements from Hagel and heavy-duty justifications from Israel-bashers. It’s not clear whether that will work to persuade several pro-Israel Democrats who would prefer not to deny the president his choice but are not comfortable with Hagel.

At the same time, the administration is emphasizing a much more palatable rationale for Hagel: his status as a war hero. Hagel would not only be the first former enlisted man to head the Pentagon, he would also be a decorated veteran whose courage under fire is a matter of record. Thus, interviews with Hagel’s brother, who served with the former senator in Vietnam and whom he saved from death, are crucial to changing the way the public looks at the nominee.

Hagel deserves enormous credit for his record in Vietnam, and there is something about having a person who was once an ordinary grunt rather than an officer or one of the brass running the Pentagon that appeals to virtually everyone. But does it really need to be pointed out that getting shot at in Vietnam doesn’t qualify someone to run an enormous institution such as the Department of Defense?

It is true that, as President Obama said when he announced Hagel’s nomination, experiencing war provides a leader with knowledge of the cost of their decisions. However, there is more to military leadership than that. It should also be pointed out that some of the same people who are touting the importance of Hagel’s war record have discounted that credential in the past.

While Democrats hyped John Kerry’s credentials as a warrior in the 2004 election and sought to smear George W. Bush as a no-show during his service in the reserves, they were quick to treat the heroics of Republican candidates as irrelevant to their quest to be commander-in-chief. In 1992 and 1996, the country was persuaded that Bill Clinton—who did his best to evade the draft—would be a better leader for the country than war heroes George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole. In 2008 Democrats acted as if John McCain’s heroics didn’t give him an edge over Barack Obama.

While war heroes still get a leg up when assessing political prospects, we are a long way from the 19th century American political practice of treating anyone with a military credential as having an automatic pass to high office. Chuck Hagel’s service to his country and behavior under fire in Vietnam says a lot about his character. But it is only part of the picture. It tells us nothing about his ability to run the Pentagon. Nor does it explain or justify his stands on key issues that put him outside the mainstream and render him a troubling choice for the Pentagon.



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