Commentary Magazine


Topic: Vietnam syndrome

A Liberal Argument Against Hagel

Chuck Schumer’s decision to give Chuck Hagel a kosher seal of approval last week seemed to take a lot of the steam out of the growing movement to stop his confirmation as secretary of defense. But, as Alana noted last week, there is still plenty of opposition to President Obama’s choice to head the Pentagon, and yesterday one of the more prominent liberal voices in the media voiced his doubts about the former senator. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller is as reliable a font of liberal conventional wisdom as can be found, but to his credit, he rejects as absurd the argument that Hagel’s military service during Vietnam qualifies him to lead the defense apparatus.

Keller takes aim, as I did recently, at the idea that military valor is a qualification for high office. Even more interesting, while Keller approves of Hagel’s non-mainstream views about engaging Iran and other Islamist threats, he also directly acknowledges that the Nebraskan seems to have a classic case of Vietnam syndrome as well as being unlikely to be able to manage generals. If liberals like Keller are willing to air this kind of a critique of Hagel, then Republicans who are thinking about going to the mat in an attempt to stop his confirmation ought to be encouraged.

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Chuck Schumer’s decision to give Chuck Hagel a kosher seal of approval last week seemed to take a lot of the steam out of the growing movement to stop his confirmation as secretary of defense. But, as Alana noted last week, there is still plenty of opposition to President Obama’s choice to head the Pentagon, and yesterday one of the more prominent liberal voices in the media voiced his doubts about the former senator. Former New York Times editor Bill Keller is as reliable a font of liberal conventional wisdom as can be found, but to his credit, he rejects as absurd the argument that Hagel’s military service during Vietnam qualifies him to lead the defense apparatus.

Keller takes aim, as I did recently, at the idea that military valor is a qualification for high office. Even more interesting, while Keller approves of Hagel’s non-mainstream views about engaging Iran and other Islamist threats, he also directly acknowledges that the Nebraskan seems to have a classic case of Vietnam syndrome as well as being unlikely to be able to manage generals. If liberals like Keller are willing to air this kind of a critique of Hagel, then Republicans who are thinking about going to the mat in an attempt to stop his confirmation ought to be encouraged.

To his discredit, Keller dismisses the very serious critiques about Hagel’s bragging about standing up to the “Jewish lobby” and thinks his desire to talk with Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah is “great.” Given that he supports these positions that are, at least on the surface, at variance with President Obama’s own views, it is curious that he chooses not to mention the fact that Hagel has completely disavowed these positions in a desperate effort to get the approval of senators like Schumer.

But Keller zeroes in on the idea that his courageous service in Vietnam tells us anything about Hagel’s abilities to carry out the job the president wishes him to fill. He notes that John Kerry’s attempt to run for president in 2004 with a “reporting for duty” theme was an embarrassing flop. He also rightly puts down attempts to disqualify liberals who didn’t serve as unworthy of giving orders to the military or to deride right-wingers who didn’t serve as “chicken hawks:”

Eliot Cohen, a neocon military historian with whom I do not often agree, wrote the following about the combat credential: “According to this view, to fill a senior policy position during a war one would of course prefer a West Point graduate who had led a regiment in combat, as opposed to a corporate lawyer turned politician with a few weeks’ experience in a militia unit that did not fight. The former profile fits Jefferson Davis, and the latter Abraham Lincoln.”

Keller also quotes an illuminating account of Hagel’s foolish criticism of our military in Iraq:

In “Endgame,” their history of the war in Iraq, Michael Gordon and Bernard Trainor recount a trip then-Senator Obama and Senator Hagel took to Iraq in 2008. Obama deftly probes General Petraeus on the nuances of winding down the conflict. But Hagel comes across as prickly and inflexible. At one point, he seems to suggest that the general should be trimming his troop requests to fit the domestic political realities in Washington, and Petraeus takes offense. “I will do what you want me to do,” Petraeus retorts. “But I’m going to give my best military advice. You seem to want me to tailor my advice to a policy.”

Hagel shows, as Keller writes, clear signs of “Vietnam syndrome” whereby veterans or others scarred by that failure “recoil from conflict” even when it is both justified and necessary to preserve America’s security. Though Keller stops short of opposing the nomination, combined with his history of taking positions aimed at undermining the alliance with Israel and appeasing our Islamist foes, his column gives Democrats and Republicans one more reason to reject Hagel’s nomination.

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