It seems certain that Chuck Hagel will be confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the next secretary of defense. But it shouldn’t be. For the Hagel issue is the perfect symbol of the dilemmas faced by America today.
The first problem is the willingness of all too much of the mass media and the Democratic Party to be a doormat for President Barack Obama even though this stance is against their own interests. Many Democratic senators resent the fact that they are so pressured to vote for Hagel even though it makes them look foolish and might endanger their reelection chances.
Their willingness to vote for Hagel, however, shows the triumph of partisanship and ideology over national interest. Obviously, there are times when those factors will prevail, especially if the question is more marginal. But when a clearly unqualified man who has made a fool of himself in public hearings is going to take a post that involves the very lives of so many, that’s where you should draw the line.
In other words, even if one argues that the president should be given whoever he wants in high posts unless there is a really good reason to deny consent to such a nomination, here is the case where that exception applies.
Second, there is the way the issue is defined. A New York senator and a New York newspaper, for example, want to narrow the problem into the idea that Hagel may have used one word — “Jewish” as in “Jewish lobby” — in an offensive way. That’s supposedly why Hagel isn’t fit for the job.
If that’s true then anyone who opposed Hagel might be considered to represent a selfish, narrow interest group. Indeed, some of Hagel’s defenders have turned the issue of his being criticized for saying nasty things about Jews having too much power into proof that Jews have too much power. In defending Hagel’s gaffe, both that senator and that editorial have also committed what might be called ideological antisemitism.
If Hagel is innocent then those who oppose him are merely too (right-wing) Jewish or pro-Israel or “neoconservative” (a code word for “Jewish,” especially in the Middle East).
What makes this view objectively absurd is that there are dozens of reasons to oppose Hagel’s nomination, most of them having nothing to do with Israel.
First and foremost among these is that he has expressed objectively anti-American views, as was shown, for example, in his agreeing with an al-Jazeera caller who described the United States as an aggressive bully. Anti-Americanism may be fashionable among the U.S. elite today but it is not a good characteristic for a secretary of defense. Aside from everything else, if the United States has always been bad for pursing its interests in the past, why should this secretary of defense compound the sin by championing U.S. interests today?
Second, it is painfully clear — even to his supporters who would never admit it in public — that Hagel doesn’t understand the issues and is incapable of running a huge bureaucracy. Hagel even admitted his incapability in his own defense, boasting that this didn’t matter since he wouldn’t be making any decisions anyway!
Once again, though, Hillary Clinton’s 2008 election advertisement test applies: Who do you want to answer the call at three a.m.? We have before us at this moment a perfect example. The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, where four Americans were murdered, was dropped into the lap of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. How many Americans might die when Hagel is given the responsibility for action?
Third, one could point out that the ultimate choices for Benghazi were with Obama. But that’s also a reason for understanding why Hagel shouldn’t be confirmed. A secretary of defense should not just be a “yes-man.” He should represent an independent point of view and also represent his department’s interests.
If the secretary of defense is only a “yes-man” for the White House, that means the views of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and commanders in the field will be left out of decision-making. With Hagel at the helm, the uniformed military will have no spokesman when the top-level priorities and choices are set.
Fourth, the appointment of Hagel is a sign of profound disrespect for America’s soldiers. Here are people who put their lives on the line and expect to be properly led. Their lives should not be jeopardized or sacrificed lightly. By putting in a man clearly incapable of performing the job—who even admits that he cannot do it properly — it is telling them that their government doesn’t care whether they live or die.
And by the same token that selection makes it more likely that more of them will die.
Finally and ironically, Democrats and Obama supporters should oppose this nomination to save the president in spite of himself. Ensuring that he will get poor advice and have an incapable person in such a key position means that Obama will look far worse as his policies fail and crises blow up into defeats. Whether or not Obama likes it, he should have someone there to explain why the president should or shouldn’t do something. It’s for his own good.
And, of course, for America’s good.