Hagel-ian Dialectic

January 9th, 2013



Washington is abuzz with speculation that the President’s nomination of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel is in jeopardy. The reason? Remarks he made on gays and a perceived “softness” on Israel. Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina called Hagel’s nomination “in-your-face.” Despite these sorts of barbs, Hagel is a shoo-in for confirmation. That’s why Hagel and the Obama administration should take the confirmation process as an opportunity to build bridges, not burn them.

There’s no question that Hagel’s qualified for the job. As a senator, Hagel was a thoughtful, well-respected voice on national security issues. He comes from the tradition of Republican internationalists in the mold of Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft. Hagel represents a Republican Party that used to have the advantage on winning the public’s trust on security. Hagel also brings strong personal experience. He served under fire in Vietnam and was awarded two Purple Hearts. He had a long career on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and since leaving the Senate Hagel has remained current on the security issues facing the country while serving as chairman of the venerable Atlantic Council as well as serving on the Defense Policy Board, and cochairing the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

Despite the hand wringing of some neoconservatives and some in the media that the Hagel nomination is in trouble, there’s no question that he will get more than 60 votes for his confirmation. But a bruising nomination fight could damage his ability to be an effective Secretary of Defense. Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, has promised a “fair hearing” on Hagel’s nomination. This means that Hagel has—and should take—the opportunity to hear out the concerns of his former colleagues and address them. As someone who has reviewed the nominations of past Cabinet-level appointees, Hagel knows that consideration for the views of the senators can greatly smooth early opposition.

For example, when former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates was first nominated, there was much concern over his involvement with Iran-Contra and that he might follow in the neoconservative path of the beginning of George W. Bush’s presidency. However, Gates met privately with key senators. He listened carefully to their concerns and addressed them. And then he was confirmed 95-2, and has been widely viewed as one of the most effective secretaries of defense.

Certainly, harsh questioning at a hearing has brought down many a nominee, but Hagel’s personal style is also not likely to provide fodder to those who would opposed his nomination. He’s never been known as a firebrand, and likely to stay cool under questioning from the Armed Services Committee. And Senatorial courtesy suggests that even those with the strongest concerns about Hagel’s nomination would raise them in a diplomatic way.

Chuck Hagel will be the next secretary of defense, and, based on his past record, he’ll be a good one.

Mieke Eoyang is the director of Third Way’s National Security Program. Prior to joining Third Way, Eoyang had a long career on Capitol Hill. Among other positions, she served as the defense policy adviser to Sen. Edward Kennedy, was the subcommittee staff director on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and was a professional staff member on the House Armed Services Committee.