By nominating moderate Nebraska Republican Chuck Hagel to lead the Defense Department, President Barack Obama has chosen a responsible, independent voice on military matters who should help shield the president and Democrats from the worst criticism as the defense budget gets cut, as it must. Hagel is former U.S. senator and decorated Vietnam veteran — the first to head the Pentagon — who has wide support from his fellow veterans. He is well suited to the job of leading the withdrawal from Afghanistan and paring down the military to one that more closely fits the country's peacetime needs. Hagel has critics, and his antagonism toward a gay man nominated for an ambassadorship 14 years ago bears explaining, but on balance he is a good choice and should be confirmed by the Senate.
Leading up to Hagel's nomination Monday, there had been a concerted effort to scuttle it. On CNN, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called him "an incredibly controversial choice," claiming that Hagel's views on foreign policy are "out of the mainstream." At issue are Hagel's opposition to sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program and suspicion about the depth of his support of Israel. He once used the term "the Jewish lobby" when speaking of pro-Israeli groups. But at the core of the criticisms, led mostly by Senate Republicans, is sour grapes over Hagel's willingness to defend Obama's national security credentials during the president's 2008 run. On Israel, Hagel voted multiple times as a senator for billion-dollar aid packages for the country's defense. On Iran, Obama has been clear that containing Iran's nuclear ambitions is a top priority and will remain so.
A two-time Purple Heart recipient, Hagel has offered refreshing candor in speaking out when the country commits its young men and women to military action. He was a fierce critic of the Iraq War after its inception, believing that the United States had lost sight of its goals. This kind of clear-eyed judgment is needed at the top of the Pentagon — a man who will weigh the life-and-death consequences for soldiers alongside America's national pride. And Hagel will be trusted by active and retired military to have their interests at heart when he works with Obama on reducing defense spending.
The criticism of Hagel coming from the left has to do with the former senator's comments in 1998 involving the nomination of James Hormel, whom Hagel described as "openly, aggressively gay," to be ambassador to Luxembourg. Hagel recently apologized to Hormel and claimed to be "fully supportive" of gay troops and their families. Many people's views on homosexuality have evolved — including the president's. But with the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell," the next defense secretary has to be committed to the full integration of openly gay service members. Hagel needs to show during the confirmation proceedings that his views are sincere, not just convenient.
The White House is confident that Hagel's 12 years in the Senate puts him in a strong position to win confirmation from his former colleagues. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson has pledged his support. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio is adopting a wait-and-see attitude. But there is nothing publicly known about Hagel that should prevent the Senate's confirmation of a decorated war veteran who has served his country with honor.