By nominating Chuck Hagel as defense secretary, President Obama has shown he isn't afraid to start his second term with an ideological fight. The withdrawal of Susan Rice as a potential nominee for secretary of state, ostensibly because her statements after the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, made her too controversial, seemed to indicate the president was interested in political consensus in his final term. Hagel, however, is likely to receive opposition from members of both parties.
Public perceptions often run counter to reality. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, likely isn't all his detractors, or supporters, believe him to be. He is known as an independent thinker who isn't afraid to question conventional notions about defense spending or military tactics. But while such an approach can be refreshing, and even commendable, his nomination almost can't help but be seen as political.
Specifically, it is an attack on the neoconservative philosophy on foreign policy and defense. As some analysts have noted, if the Senate defeats the nomination, it could be seen as a resurgence of that philosophy and the power of its adherents. If Hagel survives, it could sap the influence of those adherents significantly. But an ideological risk of this sort might not be what the nation needs at such a critical time.
No one should doubt Hagel's heroism in war. He was twice awarded the Purple Heart for wounds received in Vietnam. That likely has given him a dry-eyed view of war and its grim realities that sometimes seems missing in Washington. But his war record should not be the main consideration as the Senate prepares to consider his nomination.
Chief among the Senate's concerns should be his views on situations in Iran and North Korea. Hagel's Senate voting record indicates he prefers multilateral sanctions over unilateral ones. There are obvious advantages to the former, but does this mean he would advise inaction unless the United States can persuade other nations to join a U.S. strategy? Or does he believe the United States should be willing to act alone to protect its interests? Can the United States succeed in persuading leaders of belligerent nations to turn from their nuclear ambitions if a military option is perceived as no longer a part of the equation?
Hagel has advised opening talks with nations and political groups that oppose U.S. interests. Specifically, he has expressed support for talks with Hamas, the Palestinian group that refuses to acknowledge Israel's right to exist. Does he believe belligerent groups and dictators can be made to alter their aims through negotiations? Or does he believe it would be better to act with extreme caution in a violent region where the only democracy, Israel, is vulnerable?
President Obama's first-term record on defense and foreign policy deviated little from that of his predecessors, even as he began the draw-down of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. There is value in consistency when it comes to dealing with other nations. The nation's willingness to confront tyrants in the past can make it less necessary to have to do so in the future. We hope the Senate thoroughly examines whether Hagel would represent a shift from that consistency before it votes.