Briefly lost in the tumult surrounding the fiscal cliff battle is the potential nomination of Chuck Hagel as defense secretary. With liberal gay activists, key Republican senators and a bevy of pro-Israel groups vocally opposed to the former Nebraska senator, it is worthwhile to take a step back and answer some more basic questions.
Let’s start with an issue that should concern the Obama administration and its allies, namely the significant policy differences between Hagel and the president. President Obama believes in tough sanctions against Iran; Hagel does not. The president insists that he wants good relations with Israel (and thereby can influence its decision-making with regard to Iran); Hagel has displayed a poisonous animosity toward the Jewish state. Hagel has advocated direct negotiations with Hamas; Obama has never gone this far. The difficulty in articulating to foes and friends our positions on an array of issues is greatly magnified when a critical cabinet officials has a long track record of disagreement with the president, or at least what the president says is his current policy.
More to the point, liberals and decidedly unconservative Republicans have become aware of a more troubling issue: Hagel really has no skills and no experience in what will be his primary responsibility. (Some even suggest that Hagel is part of a rope-a-dope strategy to ease the way for someone who really does have credentials, Michele Flournoy.) David Frum seems to be asking the question Obama’s White House advisers should be most focused on:
There’s nothing in the Hagel record to indicate that he brings any relevant experience or skills to this problem. I find it baffling that President Obama would short-list him for the defense position. I’d feel the same way if Chuck Hagel were B’nai Brith’s man of the year.
Senator Hagel’s supporters offer a case in his favor that would superbly qualify him as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs in the Nixon administration. But that’s not the job we’re talking about.
In short, if one accepts that most policy in this administration gets made at the White House (more so than in administrations with powerful secretaries of state and defense) then the defense job, as we saw with Leon Panetta, becomes one centered almost entirely on executive management. If the president wants the most bureaucratically adept and skillful budget manager, it sure isn’t going to be Hagel, even his defenders (and, interestingly, virtually all are tepid ones) would concede.
You come away wondering whether Hagel’s antipathy toward Israel and his anti-military bent aren’t precisely the reasons such a troublesome nominee who serves no political purpose remains under consideration. He may reassure Obama and provide reaffirmation of his own, albeit highly troubling view. But if the president wants to trash-talk Israel, he can always have lunch with the op-ed writers at the New York Times. If he wants someone who can credibly manage the Pentagon he might want to choose someone else.