Three reasons Chuck Hagel should be Secretary of Defense

Hagel would be the first Vietnam veteran and enlisted man to serve at the head of the Department of Defense. Photo: Chuck Hagel, next Secretary of Defense? AP

WASHINGTON, January 9, 2013 — Republican Chuck Hagel is under fire from all sides, and none of it is friendly fire.

A Vietnam veteran and decorated war hero who still carries shrapnel in his chest, former Sen. Hagel (R-Neb) is a wounded warrior who came home to serve his country in the Senate and now finds himself once again under the gun, particularly from Senate colleagues as President Obama considers him for Secretary of Defense.

Leading the assault are Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). McCain, himself a Vietnam vet and former POW, once said, when he ran for president against Obama, that Hagel would make a terrific Secretary of State. Why the change of the heart? Cranky old man syndrome most likely. McCain, known as a grudge holder, was none too happy with his old friend Hagel’s endorsement of Obama. But the end of their relationship began when Hagel kept questioning President George W. Bush’s Iraqi policy of more troops while McCain was the voice of more force.

Graham, a JAG officer who has never seen combat, loves any opportunity to bash President Obama: Witness his attacks on U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice before all the Benghazi facts were in and his latest onslaught against John Brennan, who has been nominated as CIA Director.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)  AP

Yet Hagel is an honorable man, one supported by veterans groups. Democrats will confirm him, even though he’s a Republican, all the while grousing that he’s not a Democrat.

Both sides of the aisle should vote to confirm. Yes, Hagel has warts. What person, much less a politician, doesn’t? But there are three compelling reasons why he should be confirmed.

1. Hagel would be the first enlisted man, much less a veteran, to serve.

That means he understands war from the viewpoint of a soldier slogging through the steaming jungles of Southeast Asia or the searing sands of the Middle East. The Purple Heart recipient was an Army infantry sergeant who was first sent to Germany but asked instead to be deployed to Vietnam.

He knows what’s it like to be a soldier. Wounded twice, he knows what combat means and its terrible costs, and what it means to return to America as a wounded soldier. This is not a man who views war as a lark, who will send men and women into war willy-nilly.

He has literally walked in the shoes of a soldier. As President Obama said when he nominated him: “Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve.”

2. Hagel is an independent thinker.

McCain always likes to refer to himself as a maverick, but Hagel is the real thing. He refused to vote for the first Iraq war bill, though he did vote for the second resolution when it included an international coalition. As the war dragged on, he expressed serious concerns, becoming an outspoken critic of the war and ultimately the Iraqi surge.

The biggest storm of criticism zooming Hagel’s way comes from a 2006 interview with former Middle East peace negotiator Aaron David Miller.

Here is what Hagel said: “The political reality is that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. Again, I have always argued against some of the dumb things they do because I don’t think it’s in the interest of Israel. I just don’t think it’s smart for Israel.”

It definitely would have been a better choice of words to say Israeli lobby, which is more accurate, especially since using the name of a religion sets off alarm bells for some. But Hagel certainly is no anti-Semite or foe of Israel.

In his book, “America: Our Next Chapter: Tough Questions, Straight Answers,” Hagel writes: “At its core, there will be a special and historic bond with Israel exemplified by our continued commitment to Israel’s defense.”

And “a comprehensive solution should not include any compromise regarding Israel’s Jewish identity, which must be assured. The Israel people must be free to live in peace and security.”

U.S. Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.)

Hagel has also expressed reservations of jumping to “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” as his former buddy McCain advocated. But that doesn’t mean he is weak on the topic of Iran. In an opinion piece in the Washington Post that he authored with other foreign policy experts he said:

“If the United States attacks, it could set back for several years Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon. If the objective were large-scale damage to Iran’s military and weapons capability, the United States could achieve substantial success. But without large numbers of troops on the ground, we doubt that U.S. military attacks from the air — even if supplemented by other means such as drones, covert operations and cyberattacks — could eliminate Iran’s capability to build a nuclear weapon, unseat the regime or force it to capitulate to U.S. demands.”

A soldier who still bears the scars of war, Hagel understands the demands of restraint. He and President Obama are on the same page on this issue.

3. President Obama wants Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.

It is the President of the United States’ prerogative to select his Cabinet. He appoints people who will carry out his policies, simple as that. He will turn to them for advice and listen and he certainly doesn’t want yes-men and women, who don’t offer any other options except to kowtow to his ideas.

Hagel will be an independent but a thoughtful spokesman for DoD. We have seen too many presidencies derailed by having yes-people in their entourage and Cabinets. But the bottom line is that it is the President’s policies that Hagel will execute.

Before my friends on the Right jump on the issue of Borking (the process of thwarting a presidential nominee such as Robert Bork in 1987 by President Ronald Reagan), keep in mind that there is a big difference between a Cabinet nominee and a Supreme Court Justice nominee. President Reagan nominated Bork, an ultra conservative who many, especially Sen. Ted Kenney (D-Mass.) considered an extremist, to the Supreme Court and his nomination never made it through the Senate.

The big difference between the two kinds of nominations lies in the fact that the Cabinet position is at the discretion of the president and at the most can last only eight years, if a president serves two terms, and in this case only four years. But a Supreme Court Justice is a lifetime appointment with no recall or dismissal possible. This is why presidents should be allowed to select whom they want in their cabinets after the confirmation hearings.

Sen. Hagel undoubtedly will secure the Senate vote and be confirmed, but it will be tough when he appears on the Hill for the round of comfirmation hearings. However, he has been in battles before and should be more than equal to the challenge.

As he has said: “All I ask is a fair hearing, and I am very much looking forward to having a full, open, transparent hearing about my qualifications and my record.” 

To contact Catherine Poe, see above. Her work appears in Ad Lib at the Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. She can also be heard on Democrats for America’s Future. She is also a contributor to broadcast, print and online media.


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Catherine Poe

Catherine was named one of the top Progressives in Maryland along with Senator Barbara Mikulski and Congresswoman Donna Edwards. She has been a guest of President Obama in the Rose Garden.

As past president of Long Island NOW, she worked to reform women's prisons in New York, open the construction trades to women, change laws to safeguard battered women, and protect the rights of rape victims. 

Long active in Democratic politics, she served as the presidentof the Talbot Democrats in Maryland for six years and fought to getthe Health Care Reform bill passed.

Catherine has been published in a diverse range of newspapers and magazines, including Newsday, Star Democrat, Rocky Mountain News, Yellowstone News, and the Massachusetts Review.

If Catherine has learned anything over the years it is that progressive change does not come easily, but in baby steps. 

Contact Catherine Poe

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