Political Animal


December 26, 2012 11:44 AM Chuck Hagel, the Multi-Faceted Symbol

By Ed Kilgore

One of the things I missed by taking a week off shortly before Christmas was the growing furor over an increasingly likely Obama appointment of Chuck Hagel as successor to Leon Panetta at the Pentagon. At one point it looked like a Hagel nomination would arouse as much bipartisan opposition as support (the progressive case against Hagel was emphatically stated here at PA by Kathleen Geier).

Now there is a powerful push on Hagel’s behalf emanating from center-left precincts of the punditry, most of it based on the belief that the Nebraskan’s appointment would either (a) force a split within the Republican Party on foreign policy grounds, or (b) represent a formal declaration of independence by the Obama administration from the Netanyahu administration when it comes to Middle Eastern policy.

But as is often the case with such disputes, questions about Hagel’s suitability are now being submerged beneath waves of commentary about Obama’s strength and political will, as represented by this summary from Hagel-supporting Robert Wright at The Atlantic.

There’s a lot at stake here—not just whether McCarthyite smears will be allowed to succeed, but whether Obama, in the wake of the Susan Rice episode, will now get a reputation as someone who caves whenever he faces resistance. Some people say Obama will abandon Hagel because he’s too busy dealing with the fiscal cliff negotiations. The truth is that if he doesn’t stand by Hagel he’ll have a weaker hand in the fiscal cliff negotiations, because no one will take his threats seriously. “Defining moment” is an overused term, but this is a defining moment for President Obama.

According to this calculus, Obama must defy Republicans by appointing a Republican Secretary of Defense or next thing you know he’ll be caving to Republicans on tax rates and entitlements.

In all the talk about what Hagel symbolizes, should we maybe spend a bit more time thinking about what kind of Defense Secretary Hagel would be? That’s what David Frum seems to be saying in a communication with Steve Clemons on the subject:

What I find most dismaying about the debate over Senator Hagel is the utter absence from the public discussion of any mention of the single most important issue facing the next secretary of defense: how to preside over what will likely be the steepest military build-down since the 1970s with minimum harm to military capabilities.
There’s nothing in the Hagel record to indicate that he brings any relevant experience or skills to this problem. I find it baffling that President Obama would short-list him for the defense position. I’d feel the same way if Chuck Hagel were B’nai Brith’s man of the year.
Senator Hagel’s supporters offer a case in his favor that would superbly qualify him as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs in the Nixon administration. But that’s not the job we’re talking about.

I’m pretty sure my view of “minimum harm to military capabilities” is way different from David Frum’s (once I was asked by a DLC colleague if I favored NATO expansion, and replied, “I’m still undecided about NATO itself”). But he’s right: we need to be having a big debate over overall U.S. defense policy, and treating Hagel as a once-viscerally-homophobic sorta Republican who’s honked off AIPAC—or beyond that, simply as an instrument for measuring Barack Obama’s testosterone levels—misses some pretty important points.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • c u n d gulag on December 26, 2012 11:58 AM:

    I think Hagel's nomination, if it happens, is more political than anything else.

    The more Republicans President Obama can isolate from the current party, the more evident it will be to people, of how radical (Nihilistic) this party has become.

    If I were to make a suggestion, I think Jim Webb, the VA Senator who is stepping down next year, might bring many of the same qualifications as Hagel.
    Both will be Vietnam War veterans, and ex-Senators - but Webb was, after all, at one time, Secretary of the Navy.

    I'd be pushing for Webb, if I were in position to make any recommendations.

  • golack on December 26, 2012 12:03 PM:

    ...and can he get the Joint Chief's on board as well as getting the cuts through Congress???

  • Ryan Seacrest on December 26, 2012 12:36 PM:

    > steepest military build-down since the 1970s

    Wow, what naivete! Where has he been living?

  • exlibra on December 26, 2012 1:39 PM:

    gulag, I don't think Webb's the right person to be charged with downsizing the military. I may be misremembering, but wasn't his upset with Reagan (I quit, in a snit), about this very issue?

    Otherwise, yes; he'd be an excellent choice (if he's interested, which is not a given).

  • Jean-Pierre on December 26, 2012 1:57 PM:

    There are many reasons to oppose Chuck Hagel for Secreetary of Defense besides Israel, Anti-Semitism and Iran.

    You can argue that singling out only Jews for exerting too much influence is not anti-semetc. You could argue that the US should accept an Iranian nuclear weapons program or even an Iranian ICBM program. You could argue that Israel should withdraw to the

    1967 armistice lines from which it was attacked in return for nothing and still be pro-Israel.

    But to me he is the stereotypical Archie Bunker type bigot. His policies have been anti gay (even now after his late and self serving apology he doesn't support equal benefits for gay military families. He is anti-African American (with a 17/100 rating from NAACP and admires Strom Thurmond as a great role model. anti Woman (vs choice and contraception)


    Hagel has drawn additional heat from insiders who claim he lacks the credentials needed to manage a department as large and essential as the Pentagon.

    “Yes, Hagel has crazy positions on several key issues. Yes, Hagel has said things that are borderline anti-Semitism. Yes, Hagel wants to gut the Pentagon’s budget. But above all, he’s not a nice person and he’s bad to his staff,” said a senior Republican Senate aide who has close ties to former Hagel staffers.

    “Hagel was known for turning over staff every few weeks—within a year’s time he could have an entirely new office because nobody wanted to work for him,” said the source. “You have to wonder how a man who couldn’t run a Senate office is going to be able to run an entire bureaucracy.”

    Others familiar with Hagel’s 12 year tenure in the Senate said he routinely intimidated staff and experienced frequent turnover.

    “Chuck Hagel may have been collegial to his Senate colleagues but he was the Cornhusker wears Prada to his staff, some of whom describe their former boss as perhaps the most paranoid and abusive in the Senate, one who would rifle through staffers desks and berate them for imagined disloyalty,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq. “He might get away with that when it comes to staffers in their 20s, but that sort of personality is going to go over like a ton of bricks at the Pentagon.”

    Multiple sources corroborated this view of Hagel.

    “As a manager, he was angry, accusatory, petulant,” said one source familiar with his work on Capitol Hill. “He couldn’t keep his staff.”

    “I remember him accusing one of his staffers of being ‘f—ing stupid’ to his face,” recalled the source who added that Hagel typically surrounded himself with those “who basically hate Republicans.”

    Sources expressed concern about such behavior should Hagel be nominated for the defense post. With competing military and civilian interests vying for supremacy, the department requires a skilled manager, sources said.

    “The Pentagon requires strong civilian control,” a senior aide to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Free Beacon. “It’s already swung back in favor of the military over the past five years. A new secretary of defense should push it back in its rightful place, but it’s doubtful Hagel would be that guy.”

    “It’s not clear that [Hagel] has the standing, the managerial prowess, or the willingness to gore some oxen,” said the source.

    One senior Bush administration official warned that Hagel is ill informed about many critical foreign policy matters.

    “He’s not someone who’s shown a lot of expertise on these issues,” said the source, referencing a recent Washington Post editorial excoriating Hagel’s record. “That [op-ed] was extraordinary.”

    “Only in Washington,” the official added, “can someone like [Hagel] be seen as a heavy weight. He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer.”

    Hagel is likely viewed positively by the administration mainly because he is a Republican who often criticizes his own party, t

  • Josef K on December 26, 2012 2:00 PM:

    I know this isn't to say we should resign ourselves to "Secretary Hagel", or to a permanently-arming-ourselves-for-WWIII, but the fundamental point is inescapable. We're not likely to have any meaningful discussion on the issue of our military's spending levels; Washington (and the rest of the country I daresay) aren't equipped for it, either mentally or emotionally.

    Which is a pity because budgetary idiocy like this is what can cause economies and countries to collapse. Not the kind of world I want to bequeath my children.

  • c u n d gulag on December 26, 2012 2:21 PM:

    I could have been. If that's true, and I'd once known it, I'd forgotten it.

    There's been a lot worth forgetting about Reagan's years - and, especially the 8 years of W.

  • Jack Lindahl on December 26, 2012 2:47 PM:

    Call me prejudiced, but I'm not comfortable with any Republican in a Democratic administration. Can't Obama find a Democrat?

  • rrk1 on December 26, 2012 3:01 PM:

    Important cabinet appointments are always political (Hillary?), and Obama's choice of Hagel, if in fact he has made that choice, is no different. Obama wanted to send Netanyahoo (emphasis on the yahoo) a message, a thank-you for his meddling in the presidential campaign. Having done that his refusal, if he refuses, to nominate and defend Hagel, should either happen, can only be seen as major defeat for the president. He already has a history of conceding defeat before the battle, and how he handles Hagel's nomination, or potential nomination, will only set that history in stone. No one will take Obama seriously.

    Hagel may be a real shit, a homophobe, and all the rest, but for whatever reason Obama hung him out there, and is now stuck with the consequences of abandoning him. If Hagel is such a bad person, how come the president didn't know that, or that vetting him didn't reveal his negative traits, including a lack of managerial skills? This president is too cautious not to have investigated his potential nominee before leaking his choice to the press. Or was the leak unsanctioned in a deliberate effort to embarrass the president? Who's playing what game is always the right question to ask inside the beltway. AIPAC may have wanted to put Obama into a lose-lose situation.

    If Hagel is thrown under the bus, AIPAC and Yahoo will have proven once again how powerful they are within our government. I take no solace in that.

  • Ray on December 26, 2012 6:19 PM:

    If the Neocons are against Hagel, then I'm for him. The neocons and their radical agenda have been nothing but a disaster for our country. Think George Bush...

  • Doug on December 26, 2012 6:58 PM:

    I repeat, has President Obama nominated ANYONE for SoD? Or has he let it be known that there are people being considered? There IS a difference! Until a nomination occurs noone can be thrown anywhere, although the more I hear about Mr. Hagel, perhaps under a bus is where he belongs.
    Nor is the President wasting any "political capital",
    as it has to be invested first, and one doesn't invest capital in "trial balloons".
    Pocket change, maybe.

  • Daddy Love on December 26, 2012 7:19 PM:

    Or nominate a, you know, DEMOCRAT!

  • Daddy Love on December 26, 2012 7:24 PM:

    How about Carl Levin?

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