In the trench warfare that characterizes politics in the nation’s capital these days, Chuck Hagel is like a soldier stuck in no-man’s land, getting shot at from both sides.
President Obama’s choice of Hagel as his nominee to become secretary of Defense does not seem to have pleased very many people. The Republican ex-senator from Nebraska appears to have few vocal fans among his GOP Senate colleagues, and Senate Democrats look as if they will be holding their nose if forced to support the president on his choice.
What is their problem with Hagel?
First -- and this is earning him enmity from both sides of the aisle -- he is not very popular with the pro-Israel lobby. It is not that his views are anti-Israel -- his skepticism about the policies of the current Israeli government is shared by a rather large number of Israelis, after all -- it is that he has not been a bouncing, bubbling cheerleader for Israel the way so many American politicians feel they need to be.
Second, Hagel, in the past, has favored negotiation rather than confrontation with Iran. He has modified this view more recently and now says all options -- including a military option -- should be considered to stop Iran’s push for nuclear weapons. That is pretty much a consensus opinion in the foreign policy establishments of both political parties, but there are some saber rattlers on the right who, nevertheless, suspect Hagel is soft on the ayatollahs.
Third, the conservative social views he held as a senator are bugging liberals. His position on abortion leaned toward the wacky Todd Akin wing of his party, which led him to vote against allowing abortions in military hospitals. Now, with that prohibition lifted, some Democrats are wondering if he will try to undermine the new policy. Hagel also said some catty things about a gay gentleman who had been picked to be an American ambassador. Although he has since apologized for his remarks, gay-rights folks wonder if he is the right guy to oversee the new gay-friendly military.
Fourth, Democrats are wondering why in the heck Democratic presidents so often pick Republicans to run the Pentagon. They worry it plays into the stereotype that Democrats are not tough enough to be in charge of running America’s wars.
With all this working against Hagel, the question is, why did Obama choose him and not someone else who might be less of a lightning rod for criticism?
It is assumed that the choice of a Republican was meant to be a display of bipartisanship. If so, Hagel is apparently not the kind of Republican most Republicans consider a real Republican. It is said Hagel was one of Obama’s mentors during the president’s single term in the Senate and that they are pals. Well, friendship is swell, but is not necessarily the most salient qualification for a big job like this.
Probably the most compelling thing that drove Obama’s choice -- in addition to friendship and the bipartisan appeal -- is that their visions for the future of the American military are in close accord. Both believe war should be a last resort and, although most presidents and defense secretaries say they believe this, two wars in the last 10 years prove that some people are more eager to send armies abroad than others. Hagel and Obama want to bring the troops home from Afghanistan sooner rather than later and keep them home as the military is reformed and downsized for an age of drones and special ops.
Hagel also believes that the Defense Department is bloated and needs a serious weight loss plan. Obama thinks so too, and, with deficits still soaring, he would be happy to have someone in charge at the Pentagon who will not resist budget cuts.
And so, though not much has been said about it, yet, it is likely that the biggest behind-the-scenes resistance to Hagel will come from defense contractors and people within the Pentagon who think bloat is just fine. More than the pro-Israel folks, more than the bomb-Iran crowd, more than gays and abortion activists, it is those who profit from military spending and the senators who are lavished with their campaign donations who will be aiming the biggest guns to shoot down Chuck Hagel.