The prebuttals against ex-Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., as a candidate to succeed Leon Panetta as secretary of defense have imperiled Hagel’s chances of being nominated, much less winning Senate confirmation.
Unfortunately, those attacks could deprive the Pentagon of a capable and worthwhile public servant in Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient who serves as chairman of President Barack Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
Hagel has come under fire for a 1998 comment about then-President Bill Clinton’s nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg, James C. Hormel, whom Hagel described as “openly aggressively gay.”
Hagel’s comment was no doubt crude and ignorant. But given his contrite and unequivocal apology, Hagel deserves the benefit of the doubt, which Hormel himself conceded.
“Since 1998, fourteen years have passed, and public attitudes have shifted — perhaps Sen. Hagel has progressed with the times, too,” Hormel wrote in response on Facebook. “Sen. Hagel stated in his remarks that he was willing to support open military service and LGBT military families. If that is a commitment to treat LGBT service members and their families like everybody else, I would support his nomination.”
Hagel has also come under fire for his inartful use of the term “Jewish lobby” in 2008 to describe the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, D.C. But it’s a stretch to see a nefarious worldview behind such language. It’s no secret that virtually every country has lobbyists in Washington seeking to advance and protect its interests, and for a senator to comment on, for example, the “pro-China” or “pro-Saudi” lobbies — both of which exist — would be entirely uncontroversial. But Israel’s unique history makes such charges subject to misinterpretation.
Besides, Hagel’s stance toward Israel — that it shouldn’t expand West Bank settlements before an agreement on Palestinian statehood is reached — is entirely within mainstream American political thought. And as a political realist, Hagel’s nomination to head the Pentagon wouldn’t be antithetical to Israel’s interests, as Jewish columnist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times noted:
“The only thing standing between Israel and national suicide any more is America and its willingness to tell Israel the truth,” Friedman wrote Dec. 25. “But most U.S. senators, policy makers and Jews prefer to stick their heads in the sand, because confronting Israel is so unpleasant and politically dangerous. Hagel at least cares enough about Israel to be an exception.”
Hagel’s unease about a pre-emptive strike to derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions makes him too “soft” in some critics’ eyes. But this caution stems from doubts about the efficacy of such a strike, which might entail a substantial follow-up deployment of ground troops.
Far from being “soft,” Hagel simply doesn’t want to botch something America can’t afford to get wrong. Such prudence would be welcome at the Pentagon.