President Obama has taken a big risk in naming former Senator Chuck Hagel to succeed Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense. Republican war hawks like Sen. Lindsey Graham have warned of a confirmation battle royale.
The neocon brigade of armchair generals, led by Bill Kristol at the Weekly Standard, has launched a virtual jihad against Hagel’s nomination.
Democratic senators from the Northeast, like New York’s Chuck Schumer and New Jersey’s Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez, have been silent, which is quite an achievement, especially for Schumer.
They will, I suspect, fall in line and Hagel will prevail, albeit narrowly. But I think the president is risking this fight for three reasons
1. Hagel reflects his outlook on the world and the military. From the beginning of his administration and even before, President Obama has been skeptical of US military intervention in the Middle East—he won the 2008 Democratic nomination largely because he opposed the Iraq war while Hillary Clinton had voted for it. Hagel drew the ire of his party for questioning the conduct of the Iraq war and opposing the much-ballyhooed “surge.” (He also voted against President Obama’s “surge” in Afghanistan, too.)
The president also has been at loggerheads with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Hagel’s “independence” from Israel–which sometimes approaches antagonism, in my view—is what drives the neocons crazy but also appeals to the president.
2. He needs someone credible to carry out dramatic cuts in Pentagon spending. Hagel, a decorated sergeant in Vietnam, would be the first former enlisted man to run the Defense Department. And if you’ve followed the budget debate, there’s $1 trillion in cuts to discretionary spending already “sequestered” for the next decade, half of that from defense.
Congress and the president will wrestle with that in their upcoming budget fights. But the next Defense secretary will have to cut a lot of spending. As David Brooks put it in The New York Times:
Chuck Hagel has been nominated to supervise the beginning of this generation-long process of defense cutbacks. If a Democratic president is going to slash defense, he probably wants a Republican at the Pentagon to give him political cover, and he probably wants a decorated war hero to boot.
3. He wants a “voice of reason” at the Pentagon. Over the next year, President Obama may well face the most monumental military decision a U.S. president has had to make in decades: Should the U.S. join Israel in an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities?
Lately there have been signs that massive sanctions against Iran (which Hagel opposed) could push the mullahs to the bargaining table. But that has happened many times before, and at some point the president may have to respond to urgent demands from Israel for American support and involvement.
If that happens, he wants to be surrounded by trusted advisers who will not be gung-ho for military intervention—people like Secretary of State John Kerry, Vice-President Joe Biden, possible National Security Advisor Susan Rice (who won’t need Senate confirmation for that job), and Hagel, who would be the anti-Donald Rumsfeld at Defense.
Ultimately the president may decide U.S. involvement is warranted—but he wants to make that decision based on what he regards as the best possible advice.
With the Hagel nomination, President Obama has picked the confirmation fight he avoided when he opted not to name Susan Rice at State. That was the right thing to do. We’ll soon see if this battle is worth it.