The Senate confirmation hearing last week on Chuck Hagel's nomination for secretary of defense offered the nation a timely moment to assess the breadth and role of American military power in a fast-changing world. But former Republican colleagues of the ex-Nebraska senator chose instead to use his appearance before the Armed Services Committee as an opportunity to settle old political scores and undercut the Obama administration as it works to sell a more nuanced picture for the application of American military force in the modern era. Hagel had a shaky performance, but his experience, judgment and vision easily warrant the full Senate's confirmation to the post.
Hagel showed during his seven hours of testimony the difficulty that some former lawmakers face when making the leap from asking the questions to answering them. His deference to the committee and effort to distance himself from wrongheaded and controversial statements in the past about gays and the power of the "Jewish lobby" made at times for a show of weakness that is far from ideal in what constitutes a public interview process for the job.
Still, Hagel held his own on issues of substance, expressing strong support for Israel, the use of American force to attack al-Qaida and other terrorist groups, and moving forward in reshaping America's military to confront the complex threats of the 21st century. Hagel is in sync with the president on the drawdown of forces in Afghanistan and the limited role there for America's military after 2014. He also grasps the economic backdrop at home that requires a new and more focused approach for protecting America's national security interests around the world.
Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina acted like pit bulls in trying to bait Hagel as weak on Iraq and a loose cannon on Israel. Their obsession with looking backward and revising history was the wrong tack for a party that needs to come to grips with the nuances of the modern security threat. As a decorated Vietnam veteran who would become the first former enlisted combat soldier to be secretary of defense, Hagel is sensitive to the risks of committing troops, the sacrifice that deployments mean at home, and the physical and financial costs that the nation's military interventions bring long after hostilities have ended.
Hagel has the confidence of the president and a free-thinking nature that would well serve the military, the nation and its allies as America confronts the threat from other nations and independent terrorists alike in an environment when the Pentagon must do more with less. His experience enables him to particularly appreciate the burdens of America's military families. And his centrist views could bridge the gap in a divided government over when, where and how to exercise American military power. The full Senate should confirm him as secretary of defense.