Every once in a while, something transpires in politics that makes even the most cynical and hardened of observers shake his head. I found myself shaking my head over the weekend in the wake of the Senate vote to delay the confirmation of Chuck Hagel to be the next US Secretary of Defense. Invoking a cloture vote, which, like a filibuster, requires 60 votes in the 100 member US Senate, 40 Republicans voted to delay taking the final decision.
Without delving unnecessarily into the labyrinthine procedural rules of the US Senate, a hyper-deliberative body that moves at glacial speed, the cloture vote means that the actual confirmation vote mightn’t take place until early March. And despite Republican assurances that they are not going to filibuster Chuck Hagel’s nomination, there is no guarantee they won’t. It only takes one senator after all. Senate Democrats were furious after the cloture vote. As Majority Leader Harry Reid said on the Senate floor, “I’m going to go call Chuck Hagel when I finish here and say I’m sorry, I’m sorry this has happened.”
So who is this would be US defense secretary who has inspired such vociferous opposition from Senate Republicans? Chuck Hagel is a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran who led an infantry squad and won two Purple Hearts. Chuck Hagel is a hugely successful businessman who co-founded and ran a communications company and an investment banking firm. Chuck Hagel is a former US Senator who represented his native Nebraska for two terms from 1997 to 2009. And Chuck Hagel is a Republican who received an 84% rating from the American Conservative Union in his US Senate tenure. Stated another way, he was a pretty reliable conservative Republican.
In light of the foregoing, why is it that Senate Republicans oppose their erstwhile colleague and fellow Republican? A few relatively insignificant justifications have been proffered. He’s never run a bureaucracy the size of the US defense department; he’s endorsed Democrats, both of whom were military veterans, on two occasions in the past; and he’s alleged to be a fairly temperamental character. These don’t really add up, however. The real reasons for Republican opposition to Chuck Hagel are: 1) he questioned the wisdom of sending additional troops to Iraq and the “Bush doctrine” more broadly; 2) he wants to explore every potential avenue of diplomatic engagement with Iran before contemplating the use of military force; and 3) he recognizes that US foreign policy with respect to the Middle East has an inherent pro-Israel bias.
Even though it is difficult for me to fathom how anyone could disagree with Mr. Hagel on any of these three points, it’s worthwhile to examine just what he has said and what his opponents now say.
On Iraq, then-Senator Hagel predicted that the plan to send 20,000 additional troops there would be “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.” He also opined in 2006 that “there will be no victory or defeat for the United States in Iraq” and called for a “phased troop withdrawal.” While it’s questionable whether he was right on the first count, history has proven that he was correct on the second. On Iran, Mr. Hagel says that “while there is time and space for diplomacy, backed by pressure, the window is closing. Iran needs to demonstrate it is prepared to negotiate seriously.” That’s no pacifist talking.
On Israel, then-Senator Hagel once commented “that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people.” Although his use of the word Jewish is regrettable, it is a fact that the pro-Israeli lobby wields an extraordinary – many would say disproportionate – amount of clout on Capitol Hill. He also has said that “our relationship with Israel is special and historic…but it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships. That is an irresponsible and dangerous false choice.” This is a rational viewpoint. Indeed, a leading rabbi in Mr. Hagel’s home state wrote recently that his “record shows strong support for Israel” and that he understands “the Israel people and their desire to live in peace and security.” A number of prominent Jewish organizations and individuals have similarly endorsed Mr. Hagel.