By congressional standards, Hagel is quite independent on Israel. He believes in a special U.S.-Israel relationship but not one in which the United States accepts Israeli actions uncritically. And he isn’t as emotionally connected to Israel as some of his former colleagues in Congress — such as Rep. John Lewis (Ga.) or Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.) — are. But in our interview, his writings and his voting record on military aid to Israel, Hagel has been clear that Israel is a small, democratic ally in a dangerous neighborhood worthy of support.
As for Hagel’s observation about the Jewish lobby, it was an impolitic description; support for Israel rests on millions of Christians, too. But as anyone who’s lived in Washington or followed U.S.-Israeli politics knows, Hagel was just stating the obvious. The pro-Israel community and lobby have a strong voice, though hardly a veto over U.S. policy. Members of Congress also know how powerful the pro-Israel community is — they’re just not willing to admit it publicly, let alone challenge it. Hagel is one of the few who does.
Hagel isn’t qualified.
Was Donald Rumsfeld? Nobody had a better resume for the position: a former member of Congress and defense secretary under Gerald Ford, with management expertise from his days in the private sector. Yet, as George W. Bush’s Pentagon chief, Rumsfeld helped conceive and direct a disastrous war in Iraq that cost thousands of lives and trillions of dollars and eroded American credibility.
What matters isn’t just credentials, but a candidate’s judgment and discretion. We need a defense secretary who be tough and realistic about when, how and why America projects its military power abroad. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Republican secretary of war, Henry Stimson, Hagel believes in bipartisan foreign policy; like Robert Gates, he is an analyst and a skeptic. And that’s what we need today — pragmatists and doubters, not ideologues.
Hagel has management experience: He was deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration under President Ronald Reagan and chief executive of the USO in the late 1980s. And he has foreign policy and intelligence credentials: He’s co-chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and a member of the defense secretary’s Policy Advisory Board.
Further, Hagel — who would be the first enlisted, decorated combat veteran to run the Pentagon — personally understands the costs of war. Having been wounded in combat, he would be uniquely committed to the well-being of U.S. troops. This would give Hagel real authority to run the Pentagon and deal with the generals. As Ryan Crocker, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan, recently put it: “Hagel would run the Defense Department; it would not run him.”