This isn’t like most of the other Chuck Hagel endorsements, which have hurt him more than they’ve helped him. Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s support is actually meaningful, especially for someone like Hagel, who was a big critic of the Iraq war while Crocker was ambassador to that country. He pens a strong defense of Hagel at the Wall Street Journal today:
Mr. Hagel understands far better than most the evils of Hamas and Hezbollah, both backed by Iran. He also appreciates the importance of looking in and among those groups for fissures that might lead to internal debate, dissension or division—or even to areas of agreement with the U.S. In the months after the 9/11 attacks, I negotiated with Iranian officials regarding Afghanistan; it accomplished a little of both, spurring agreement on some issues and internal debate among the Iranians on others.
Chuck Hagel understood this, as he understood the importance of the unsuccessful talks I had with the Iranians in 2007, when I was serving as U.S. ambassador to Iraq. The failure of those talks helped convince Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki that a diplomatic solution to Iranian interference in Iraq wasn’t possible, at which point he decided to use his army successfully against Iranian-backed militias.
Most of the argument is made in personal terms that are moot; Crocker reassures that Hagel’s heart is in the right place on Israel, and that he understands the magnitude of the Iranian threat. But for the rest of us judging him based on his public record, the evidence just isn’t there.
The endorsement may also be too late to matter. Even if President Obama hasn’t made up his mind yet, both sides are digging in and the fight is becoming increasingly bitter. Obama wouldn’t just be picking a battle with Republicans. Plenty of liberal Democrats, most recently Barney Frank, have also opposed the possible nomination. The gay community is still wary of Hagel’s position on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, and women’s groups are lobbying for a female secretary of defense now that Hillary Clinton is leaving the State Department.
The longer Obama waits to make a decision, the more divisive the issue will become. And unless Hagel has a lot more supporters of Crocker’s caliber waiting in the wings, he’s not going to be able to match the level of the opposition. Maybe that doesn’t matter to Obama; at the end of the day, it’s still his choice. If he wants Hagel badly enough, then he’ll suffer through the fight.