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In Defense of Chuck Hagel

By: Christopher Linnan On January 7, 2013 President Obama nominated former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to be our next Secretary of Defense.  One would assume that a rare act of bipartisanship in Washington D.C. would have been warmly received.  Common sense would seem to dictate that a Midwestern Republican would actually be much more appealing to the right than the typical Obama cabinet appointment.  Alas, Hagel’s nomination generated a firestorm of criticism from Senate Republicans - including many former colleagues - who hold the key to his confirmation.

Unfortunately, this vitriol is not limited to hard-core Tea Partiers, as some of the more moderate Senate Republicans, including Lindsey Graham and John McCain, have complained about Hagel’s nomination.  This hostility is grounded primarily in his perceived unfriendliness towards Israel and reluctance to blindly adhere to a confrontational foreign policy.  These charges are highly dubious at best and indicate how far the Republican Party has shifted from the mainstream foreign policy debate.

The charge that Hagel is anti-Israel is based on several comments that he made about Israel and the pro-Israel lobby in America.  His most controversial statement was his complaint “that the Jewish lobby (in the United States) intimidates a lot of people here and does some ‘dumb things’ that aren't ‘smart for Israel.’… [and] that ‘I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator.’”[i]  Hagel’s comments on the so-called “Jewish lobby” are crude and evoke an image out of the Protocol of the Elders of Zion.  The American Jewish population is divided on Israel, as evinced by seventy percent of the American Jewish electorate who voted for the supposedly anti-Israel Barack Obama in 2012.[ii]  The primary pro-Israel lobby is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which is hardly representative of all Jews or just Jews.  Hagel’s comments were careless and insensitive, but this can hardly be reason to automatically disqualify him.  His claim that Israel does things “that aren’t smart for Israel” is hardly controversial as there are many people in both the United States and Israel who believe its increasingly belligerent attitude has created more problems than it has solved.

During his time in Congress, Chuck Hagel voted for every bill giving Israel financial support.[iii]  He never questioned Israel’s right to exist or to defend itself, which begs the question of what anti-Israel actually means.  The problem is that the debate on Israel has shifted so far to the right that it has become irrational.  Former Nebraskan Senator Bob Kerrey bluntly states that “’you could oppose settlements in the 1990s,’ (referring to Israelis building on land beyond Israel's 1968 borders) [but] ‘Not anymore.’”[iv]

I believe that Israel will eventually regret its bellicose attitude, as its list of allies continues to dwindle.  During the vote on upgrading Palestine’s status last November, Israel was joined by eight countries in voting against the move.[v]  Besides the United States and Israel, opposing countries included superpowers such as Palau, Nauru, Panama, and the Marshall Islands.  Israel is being led down a dangerous path by the Netanyahu-led governing coalition.  America must have leaders who are willing to support Israel, yet be reasonable at the same time.  Supporting Israel does not mean agreeing with everything it does, especially when many of its actions potentially endanger its allies and itself in the long run.

Doug Bandow points out the experience contrast between many of the “sofa samurai and think tank warriors” who are loudly demonstrating against Hagel’s nomination and the former senator, who is a two-time Purple Heart recipient and Vietnam War veteran.[vi]  Hagel’s foreign policy record is not characterized by outlandish positions.  He voted for the Iraq war, yet later regretted his support and criticized the Bush Administration’s handling of the war.  He has also been hesitant to commit to the tough rhetoric of right-wing warmongers and supports engaging Hamas and Hezbollah to achieve a lasting peace.  This does not mean he supports an alliance or an appeasement.  The current Israeli approach to demand unreasonable preconditions before any engagement, which it knows neither group will ever agree to, is both cynical and self-defeating.  Hagel’s approach should be a breath of fresh air as the take-no-prisoners foreign policy approach of the far-right has stirred more resentment in the Middle East.

Unfortunately, a willingness to think outside the box has made Hagel a target.  Republicans seem to have forgotten that even Ronald Reagan was quite willing to engage terrorists and sat down at the negotiating table with the Soviet Union, America’s arch-enemy during the 1980s.  Hagel’s hesitancy to commit to armed intervention in either Iran or Syria are much more in line with mainstream America than the war hawkish views espoused by today’s Republican Party.[vii]  One need look no further than the presidential foreign policy debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, where Romney suddenly adopted a much more centrist approach and avoided anything that could be constructed as pugnacious rhetoric after trying to spend the entire Republican primary proving he was “severely conservative”.

Chuck Hagel’s life in public service and his decorated service in Vietnam should speak for themselves as to his qualifications to be our next Secretary of Defense.  He holds no kooky views that endanger America or any of our allies.  Yet, the Republican Party would have us believe that he is unfit to join President Obama’s cabinet.  This is the same party that chose Dick Cheney to be Secretary of Defense despite his five draft deferments.  Americans often lament the death of the “moderate” in modern American politics, yet outside of the punditocracy there has been very little outcry over the tough nomination fight that Chuck Hagel will face.  We should be rejoicing that our next Secretary of Defense will be a highly-qualified independent thinker rather than an unqualified politician on the fringes of mainstream political thought.  If we don’t do everything in our power to ensure Chuck Hagel is confirmed we risk being held hostage by the far-right for the foreseeable future.

Christopher Linnan is a rising senior majoring in history. His chief interests are contemporary European and American politics. He is currently studying abroad in Dortmund, Germany.


[i] Associated Press, “Hagel Nomination Unnerves Some in Israel,” Politico 7 January 2013, http://www.politico.com/story/2013/01/chuck-hagel-nomination-unnerves-some-in-israel-85865.html, accessed 17 January 2013.

[ii] Gerstein, Bocian, Agne Strategies, “J Street: National Post-Election Survey,” J Street 6 November 2012, https://s3.amazonaws.com/s3.jstreet.org/images/national_election_survey.pdf, accessed 17 January 2013.

[iii] Al Hunt, “Neo-Cons Exploit Hagel Nomination to Refight Lost Wars,” Bloomberg 13 January 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-01-13/neo-cons-exploit-hagel-nomination-to-refight-lost-wars.html, accessed 17 January 2013.

[iv] Bengali, Shashank, “Chuck Hagel's Opponents Switched Gears,” Los Angeles Times 14 January 2013, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-hagel-profile-20130114,0,3529852.story, accessed 17 January 2013.

[v] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Obama: ‘Israel Doesn’t Know What Its Best Interests Are,’” Bloomberg 15 January 2013, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-01-14/what-obama-thinks-israelis-don-t-understand-.html, accessed 17 January 2013.

[vi] Doug Bandow, “The Dishonorable Smear of Chuck Hagel: A Warrior who Despises War,” Forbes 14 January 2013, http://www.forbes.com/sites/dougbandow/2013/01/14/the-dishonorable-smear-of-chuck-hagel-a-warrior-who-despises-war/, accessed 17 January 2013.

[vii] Hunt, “Neo-Cons Exploit Hagel Nomination.”

Tunisia, Democracy, and an Arab Winter: Where are we now?

Emory Journal of International Affairs Issue 1