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?