Do not count us among the chorus venting opposition to the Hagel nomination because of his alleged antipathy toward an American ally, Israel; or because of the foreign policy positions he has taken in the past before reversing them in the present. His voting record and formal policy statements on Israel’s security are, generally, solid (notwithstanding his “Jewish lobby” discomfiture) and if flip-flopping were a disqualification for high office, the oval office would be vacant and the halls of Congress would be a lonely place in which to venture forth.
We do, however, find Hagel to be a most curious selection, simply because it portends a fractious fight (and not just with Republicans) that the President doesn’t need; and the nomination seems to send mixed signals at best and wrong signals at worst to friend and foe alike to whom we should be speaking with clarity.
We would opine that what Obama finds most appealing about Hagel is that he considers him a kindred spirit who shares a vision of a substantially scaled down, less muscular, military and an America that speaks much more softly while carrying a much smaller stick.
We can all recall that the President in an unscripted moment with an open microphone in front of him said to Dmitry Medvedev who was then President of Russia, “This is my last election. After my election I have more flexibility.” He is going to rein in military spending no doubt so that he can reallocate the money that is thereby saved for more of his expenditures on social welfare programs. While Leon Panetta is concerned that our forces will be hollowed out, Hagel calls the Pentagon “bloated and needing to be pared down.”
On Iran, Hagel, as Charles Krauthammer pointed out, doesn’t just oppose military action, a problematic option with serious arguments on both sides. He actually opposed any unilateral sanctions. “You can’t get more out of the mainstream than that,” Mr. Krauthammer opined.
Hagel believes in diplomacy as if talk alone will deter the theocracy in Iran. He even opposed designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization at a time when they were supplying material and supporting attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and supporting extremist activities throughout the Middle East. Moreover, he seems to indicate that he is prepared to follow a policy of containment against a nuclear Iran.
The point is that Hagel is not going to be running U.S. foreign policy; but he will be a key facilitator of the President’s policies. Don’t think that the message hasn’t gotten to the mullahs in Iran. They have already cheered the choice of what they call this “anti‑Israel” nominee. And they fully understand what his nomination signals regarding administration resolve about stopping them from going nuclear. As Eliot Cohen pointed out in The Washington Post, “You may like the idea of Chuck Hagel as Defense Secretary or loathe it. You may consider his views on Iran sound or feeble, his comments about ‘the Jewish lobby’ inoffensive or ugly, his views on a policy of extensive assassination, ‘taking terrorists off the battlefield’ unremarkable or chilling, his apology for harsh remarks about a gay ambassador sincere or opportunistic. Whatever you believe about any of those things, you should disregard what appears to be President Obama’s chief case for nominating him: that he served honorably as a sergeant in Vietnam, where he was twice wounded in combat.”
It seems incomprehensible that the President could nominate someone who opposes the very sanctions, which the President has touted as working. Last year the President, in writing, told the American Jewish Committee, “Today because of concrete steps that I and my Administration have taken, Iran is under greater pressure and more isolated than ever. We have led the international community in putting in place the toughest and most comprehensive sanctions in the history of Iran.”
As reported in the Washington Post, “with the near unanimous approval of Congress, the U.S. has passed four rounds of unilateral sanctions. In 2009, seventy-seven Senators co-sponsored, not just voted for, sanctions on any entity in the world that provided refined petroleum products to Iran. This legislation was rolled into The Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act, which passed the Senate unanimously by voice vote in January and later passed on a ninety-nine to nothing roll call vote in June 2010.” Hagel would have voted against all of these sanctions just as he voted against all prior sanctions during the Bush Administration. Given that sanctions have arguably been Obama’s only success in confronting Iran (even the irrepressible Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has now admitted the sanctions are hurting), Hagel’s staunch, long-standing opposition to US imposed sanctions should be a disqualifier in and by itself.
While most of the media attention, so far, has been on Hagel’s anti-sanction votes regarding Iran, he has taken the same position with respect to North Korea, Syria, Libya and Cuba. This aversion to American-imposed sanctions is incompatible with the centerpiece of Obama’s strategy and it is, in our opinion, also flat‑out wrong. Hagel supporters say that the Israel lobby is using paranoia and scare tactics to over hype the threat of a nuclear Iran, but President Obama himself said that “a nuclear‑armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained,” and he promised to do whatever must be done to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
House minority leader Eric Cantor, summed up widespread concern over the Hagel nomination stating, “Hagel opted for political expediency in opposing the surge in Iraq, and supported a retreat that would have ceded victory to al Qaeda and Iran. The nomination of a man known primarily for opposing sanctions and military action against Iran strongly suggests that all options are not on the table. Hagel’s nomination telegraphs weakness in the Middle East and defeatism in Afghanistan and our Taliban and Iranian adversaries will surely be emboldened.
Think about the consequences, not just to Israel, but to the United States and to the rest of the Middle East of Iran having nuclear weapons. Will Saudi Arabia be next? There in the heart of Islam the Kingdom (like all of the Gulf states) fears Iran, and fears that Shiite fundamentalism will marginalize the loyal Sunni’s in the area.
Senator Hagel has also been appallingly naive on standing up to terrorists and extremists in the Middle East. He has repeatedly supported and misjudged the Assad regime in Syria; he opposed the surge in Iraq and he has refused to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
Perception can often drive reality and in this respect we, again, find the Hagel nomination curious. The perception that the President wants to send a message to Israel and to Netanyahu is not, by any means, confined to the shrinking pro-Israel corner of the world. Just pause and reflect on what the media in the Arab world is reporting. For example, Al Arabiya reports:
“Chuck Hagel, the nominee for the next U.S. defense secretary, will seek to rein in Israel over any attempt to carry out a unilateral strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, Israeli observers believe…Analysts and commentators note that Hagel is known for a non-interventionist approach to foreign policy, and is believed to be strongly opposed to the use of military force to tackle Iran’s nuclear program.”
While we assume Obama may well prevail, victory is by no means certain. His Hagel strategy is not without risk. A filibuster over the Hagel nomination is quite possible in which case Hagel will need 60 votes for a confirmation. Republicans could, on their own, muster enough votes to stop the Hagel nomination cold in its tracks. Given that more than one Democrat also has expressed concern about the Hagel nomination, Obama is pursuing an unnecessarily risky choice. It almost seems as though this is a fight President Obama is spoiling to have. One can only wonder why.