For Secretary of Defense? (Updated) - Commentary

Chuck Hagel made news by endorsing Joe Sestak, but quite apart from Sestak there is reason to examine Hagel’s record. The administration, it seems, is seriously considering him for secretary of defense when Robert Gates retires. Yes, Hagel — the Republican opposed to the Iraq war and who’s compiled an anti-Israel record that brought appropriate condemnation from Jewish Democrats — is in the mix, according to news reports.

Ben Smith reports that Hagel is being championed by National Security Adviser Jim Jones (often the originator of silly ideas and ill-advised statements). Smith explains:

He opposed the war in Iraq, has spoken of the need to leave Afghanistan, and — though this is hazier territory — has infuriated supporters of Israel for a refusal to sign on to the many statements of support on the Hill for the Jewish State, and by suggesting the more dispassionate approach to that conflict that — on some days — Obama seems to prefer.

This is the context for the fierce attacks on Joe Sestak, incidentally, for accepting Hagel’s endorsement: It’s a warning signal that whatever the other merits, confirmation would hardly be a cakewalk. He’s taken fire from Democrats as well as Republican for his Middle East politics, and with both that process and Iran on the front burner, his appointment would likely concentrate debate on those issues.

Indeed, it is unclear, with a nuclear-armed Iran looming and a more Republican Senate in the offing, whether Hagel would be confirmable. His national security record would be hard to defend, even by Democrats wishing to support the faltering president.

For example, in 2006, when Hezbollah’s attacks provoked Israeli retaliation and the war in Lebanon, Hagel screeched for the president to demand an immediate cease-fire, arguing it was essential in order to “enhance America’s image and give us the trust and credibility to lead a lasting and sustained peace effort in the Middle East.” Our credibility, in his eyes, depends on the United States’s preventing Israel from defending itself.

Last year, Hagel signed a letter urging Obama to open direct negotiations with Hamas, a position so extreme that Obama hasn’t (yet) embraced it.

On Iran, Hagel was one of two senators in 2004 to vote against renewal of the Libya-Iran sanctions act. (“Messrs. Hagel and Lugar … want a weaker stance than most other senators against the terrorists in Iran and Syria and the West Bank and Gaza and against those who help the terrorists. They are more concerned than most other senators about upsetting our erstwhile allies in Europe — the French and Germans — who do business with the terrorists.”)

Hagel seems to be a member in good standing of the Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett school of Iran suck-uppery. In 2007 Hagel wanted to open direct, unconditional talks with Iran. (“It could create a historic new dynamic in US-Iran relations, in part forcing the Iranians to react to the possibility of better relations with the West.”) In 2007 he voted against designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization. In 2008 he voted against Iran sanctions.

His views on Syria are equally misguided:

On November 11, 2003, when the Senate, by a vote of 89 to 4, passed the Syria Accountability Act authorizing sanctions on Syria for its support of terrorism and its occupation of Lebanon. Mr. Hagel — along with Mr. Kerry — didn’t vote. Mr. Hagel met in Damascus in 1998 with the terror-sponsoring dictator, Hafez Al-Assad, and returned to tell a reporter about the meeting, “Peace comes through dealing with people. Peace doesn’t come at the end of a bayonet or the end of a gun.”

If Obama’s pick for ambassador to Syria couldn’t get through the Senate, how would Hagel?

Finally, Hagel is a nominee who would thrill the Walt-Mearsheimer Lobby:

In an interview quoted in Aaron David Miller’s book on the peace process called The Much Too Promised Land, Hagel said: “The political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.”

Hagel then described a meeting he had in New York with a group of supporters of Israel, one of whom suggested Hagel wasn’t supportive enough of Israel. Hagel said he responded: “Let me clear something up here if there’s any doubt in your mind. I’m a United States Senator. I’m not an Israeli senator. I’m a United States Senator. I support Israel. But my first interest is, I take an oath of office to the constitution of the United States. Not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel.”

A Democratic, pro-Israel activist alarmed by the possibility of a Hagel appointment told me:

In 2006, after Hezbollah attacked Israel and instigated a war, Hagel took to the Senate floor and called on President Bush to demand an immediate Israeli cease-fire and accused Israel of “the systematic destruction of an American friend, Lebanon” and of “slaughter.” Given that Hezbollah has killed more Americans than any terrorist group except al-Qaeda — including 241 brave young Marines and some of our finest CIA officers — and Israel is one of our closest allies in the world, these kinds of statements not only call into question Hagel’s views but his fitness to serve as secretary of defense or in any other national security capacity.

Given his long, questionable record and the clear problems his nomination would cause — not to mention the volumes of criticism by other Democrats for his rank hostility to Israel — it is hard to believe that the White House would want to make such a risky choice at precisely the time we are asking the Israelis to “trust us” on Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict. I wonder if his career-long effort to derail sanctions to stop Iran’s nuclear program will comfort the Israelis or our Arab and European allies at this critical juncture. Then again, given President’s Obama’s record in this area, this is a matter of serious, ongoing concern.

A Hagel nomination would be a political nightmare for Senate Democrats — another “walk the plank” request from the White House that would paint them as weak on defense and on the Iranian nuclear threat. Maybe this is a trial balloon. If it’s more than that, it will go over like a lead one.

UPDATE: A reader emails that “Hagel didn’t just vote no on sanctions in 2008; he killed the bill.” The reader is correct: “In early October, he prevented action on a bill, which had passed in the House, proposing economic sanctions against Iran. Hagel has long criticized unilateral sanctions as ineffective and counterproductive.”

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