Just when you thought the partisan gamesmanship in Washington couldn't get any odder, comes this: U.S. President Barack Obama has named a former Republican senator to a key cabinet post, and the nomination is coming under fierce attack -- from Republicans.
Opposition to Chuck Hagel's nomination to be secretary of defence says a lot about the state of politics. It is based not on his being unqualified; Hagel is, after all, a decorated combat veteran, a two-term GOP senator from Nebraska and an expert on national security issues. Rather, it's because he's deemed to be insufficiently partisan, insufficiently supportive of Israel, insufficiently tough on Iran and insufficiently wedded to a bloated military budget.
Let's take the critiques one by one:
Hagel has offended many Republicans by reaching across party lines to form alliances. In 2008, he declined to endorse his party's presidential candidate, John McCain. This non-endorsement came after Hagel helped burnish Obama's foreign policy credentials by accompanying his Senate colleague on a six-day overseas trip during the campaign. Last year, after having left office, Hagel endorsed Democrat Bob Kerrey in his race for Nebraska's other Senate seat. These actions would no doubt disqualify Hagel from being GOP chairman and prevent him from winning back his old seat. But payback should not be a reason to block Hagel from serving his country again.
On Israel, Hagel pushed for what he called a more even-handed approach to Israeli-Palestinian disputes, a position shared by virtually all of America's allies. He declined to sign letters taking Israel's side in the 2000 Palestinian uprising and calling for the United Nations to put Hezbollah on its terrorist list. After leaving office in 2009, he signed a letter urging the Obama administration to initiate talks with Hamas. Some of these positions are questionable, but they are hardly disqualifying. While America should be steadfast in its support of Israel, it should not necessarily take its government's side on every occasion. Doing so undermines America's ability to present itself as an honest broker in promoting Middle East peace.
On Iran, the rap against Hagel is built on his insistence a military strike should be taken off the table (which he has recently modified to take Obama's approach of seeing it as a last-resort option). His prior position was misguided, in our view, but the president, not the defence secretary, sets foreign policy, and Obama has vowed to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Hagel has, on multiple occasions, called the Pentagon budget bloated. In 2010, he said he would like to see $100 billion cut over five years, which is a reduction of roughly three per cent in a budget that has doubled since 9/11. His only fault might be he is too timid.
Hagel's views on these and other issues aren't necessarily ones the administration should adopt. But he represents a world view that is widely held in foreign policy circles, including some Republican ones.
He is an internationalist and a pragmatist, one who takes a businesslike view of foreign policy, seeing America's influence leveraged by forming alliances rather than going it alone. He has a Vietnam War veteran's recognition it's easier to get into wars than out of them.
Perhaps Hagel's Senate confirmation hearings will raise valid concerns about his views and his fitness for office. For now, though, the rush to torpedo his nomination looks like the latest unseemly power play in a capital that sees too many.
SEE: Hagel's 'Jewish problem' by columnist Jeffrey Goldberg online at winnipegfreepress.com