Chuck Hagel in the hot seat

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to become the next secretary of defense on Capitol Hill.
(Alex Wong / Getty Images)

There are three acceptable reasons for the Senate to reject a president’s nominee for a Cabinet position: The candidate lacks credentials for the position; he fails to meet high ethical standards for personal behavior; or he holds extreme views. It was clear before former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings that he possessed the necessary personal and professional qualifications to serve as secretary of Defense. Hagel’s testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday demonstrated that his views about foreign and defense policy are not only well within the mainstream but consonant with those of the president who selected him.

As predicted, Hagel was aggressively questioned by Republicans on the committee, some of whom laid traps designed to portray him as hostile to Israel, indulgent of Iran and naive about the possibility of abolishing nuclear weapons. Hagel sometimes was less than adroit in countering the attacks, and occasionally seemed flustered under the onslaught.

Confronted by cherry-picked quotations from his past, the nominee was eager to regret his phraseology even when it was perfectly defensible. On the other hand, Hagel was needlessly coy when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) asked whether he still believed President George W. Bush’s troop surge in Iraq was a mistake. Hagel replied that “I’m not going to give you a yes or no answer,” and suggested that history would be the judge. Hagel could as easily have admitted that, viewed in hindsight, the surge seemed to stabilize the situation in Iraq. That wouldn’t have detracted from the fact he was correct that the overall war was a blunder.


Still, the substance of Hagel’s testimony, beginning with his opening statement, belied the notion that he is out of the mainstream on Israel, Iran or nuclear preparedness, let alone “far to the left even of those of the administration,” as Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) bizarrely suggested. He promised to support a “qualitative military edge” for Israel, endorsed the administration’s policy of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon (resorting to military force if necessary) and committed himself to “maintaining a modern, strong, safe, ready and effective nuclear arsenal.”

In Hagel, Obama has chosen someone who — perhaps more than his first two secretaries of Defense — shares his determination to use military force only as a last resort and to effect economies in military spending. But neither the president nor his nominee is a radical. Fair-minded senators of both parties should support Hagel’s confirmation.