Conservative Chuck Hagel: A Liberal’s Best Friend?

Enlisted man. Vietnam war hero. Born in North Platte, Nebraska. Two-term right-wing Republican Senator. Georgetown University professor. Chuck Hagel.

Now he has been nominated by President Obama to be our Secretary of Defense, as once again a Democratic president turns to a Republican to oversee one-half of the military-industrial complex.

Naturally, since Obama chose him, the usual suspects in the Republican Party have a problem with Hagel, which doesn’t interest me all that much at the moment, mainly because that’s all we will hear about until he is confirmed by the Senate.

By the way, just to give you an example of how mainstream journalists will wear us out with hysterical right-wing criticisms of Hagel: After President Obama finished his nomination remarks this afternoon, he and his nominees had barely left the room before MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell was reading a statement—”the one we’ve been waiting for,” she exclaimed!—from, who else, John McCain, who, what else, has “serious concerns” about some of the positions Hagel has taken.


What interests me now is the opposition to his nomination from some on the left.

Some liberals resent choosing yet another Republican—one who was once ranked very high as a conservative by the American Conservative Union and Club for Growth (Hagel got a whopping 99 in 2005)—for the Pentagon  job. The pick, they say, keeps “the myth” going that Democrats are national security weaklings, in need of a strong Republican to give them clout.

And some of the good guys resent Hagel’s stupid remarks directed toward an openly gay Clinton nominee for ambassador to Luxemborg in 1998. Those remarks can’t be defended and Hagel ain’t defending them, but Barney Frank has a point that if they were directed at “any other minority group” of Americans, they would be an obstacle to “a major presidential appointment.”

Some on the left also believe that Michèle Flournoy, a real Democrat who worked for Obama at the Pentagon as Under Secretary of Defense Policy for almost three years, deserved the job and would have broken important ground, if she had been nominated. Can’t argue with that.

So, while there are plenty of good reasons for folks on the left to have McCain-like “serious concerns,” there are two very good reasons for us to consider the upside of a Hagel confirmation, one of them with a potentially monumental upside.

The first reason has just been endorsed by Barney Frank himself, as reported by the Boston Globe:

I was hoping the president wouldn’t nominate him,” Frank told the Globe today.

“As much as I regret what Hagel said, and resent what he said, the question now is going to be Afghanistan and scaling back the military,” Frank said. “In terms of the policy stuff, if he would be rejected [by the Senate], it would be a setback for those things.”

Scaling back the military.” It has now become conventional wisdom that the Pentagon cuts coming down the road will need a pretty strong Republican at the Pentagon to get them done, without right-wingers rhetorically hanging President Obama for treason. I certainly understand that.

But the second reason, which may end up being the most important reason of all for giving Hagel the defense job, was expressed very well by Matthew Duss at The American Prospect:

Hagel was willing to face up to the fact that the Iraq war was a strategic failure, one that significantly empowered America’s enemies and dramatically undercut America’s influence in the region.

Not only is that realistic assessment of the Iraq war important in itself, it has important implications for our future dealings with Iran.

As President Obama said today, Chuck Hagel “understands that war is not an abstraction.” Add to that his demonstrated understanding of the dramatic failure of Bush’s Iraq policy—which had neo-con fathers in Congress and the press—and what we may have in Hagel is exactly the kind of guy Democrats should want sitting at the table when decisions are made about what to do with Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

A reformed Republican may, in this case, be a liberal’s best friend as we seek a prudent shrinking of the defense budget. But, more important, he may be the country’s best friend if he helps keeps us out of yet another war in the Middle East.

[By the way, I recommend all liberals, heck, and all of you conservative lurkers, to go and read this article at Salon.]

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  1. ansonburlingame

     /  January 7, 2013

    Something to consider,

    First, I am not particularly concerned about the politics of whoever becomes the next SecDef. I say so because politics should not govern decisions made in that massive bureaucracy about a $700 Billion, or so, a year bureaucracy.

    No doubt defense costs MUST come down, dramatically. But ultimately politics should not be the determining factor, like which base in which state remains or is cut, or what hardware is made where to delcide whether it is needed (or not). Defense spending SHOULD be driven by the needs to defend “something” wherever that “something” might be. As well defend “it” against what, exactly, now and in the future.

    Defense spending SHOULD be driven by National Objectives and the national strategy to achieve those directives. When was the last time we really had a debate over such matters BEFORE we spent the money or even tried to authorize it. A bill passed this year establishes funding for many years in the future, for defense, health care, etc.

    We need some very “wise men” to lead the debate over, just as an example HOW we will expect to “defend” our interests in the future in just the Middle East alone, as part of that debate. If retaining sufficient military power “there” in the future is considered important, well we better debate it BEFORE we slash defense spending to the bone today.

    Then add in the rest of the future world and just watch the numbers on the face of the calculator spin higher and higher. “Keep America Strong” are empty words. Strong enough to do WHAT and WHERE and WHEN is where the debate should take place.

    The next SecDef should, first and foremost, be a superb STRATEGIC thinker and “doer” as well, politics be damned, in my view. Colin Powell, anyone or even Gen Petraus?



    • First, politicians practice the art of politics and there is plenty of politics being played in this nomination, mostly by Republicans, who once found Hagel in the “mainstream” of their party, but now that the party itself has moved so far right, they feel obliged to boot him out and make him sound like a dangerous man.

      And, of course, politics will play a role in how defense cuts are made. President Obama said Hagel “represents the bipartisan tradition that we need more of in Washington.” And bipartisanship will be absolutely necessary on defense cuts. The sausage-making that will go on during that process won’t be pretty, so I advise you to look the other way when we get to that point, if we ever do.

      Finally, I couldn’t agree with you more when you wrote,

      “Keep America Strong” are empty words. Strong enough to do WHAT and WHERE and WHEN is where the debate should take place.

      Sure, such a debate should take place and soon. Keep the bases in Europe? In Japan? Things have to change. But that’s not the only reason a Secretary of Defense exists, Anson. He is right in the middle of any decision to go to war, and I feel a lot better now about the Hagel decision because, as President Obama expressed it,

      Maybe most importantly, Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction.  He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that’s something we only do when it’s absolutely necessary.  “My frame of reference,” he has said, is “geared towards the guy at the bottom who’s doing the fighting and the dying.”  With Chuck, our troops will always know, just like Sergeant Hagel was there for his own brother, Secretary Hagel will be there for you.

      And, seeming to address your concerns, Anson, the President ended with this:

      To have those who have been in the field, who have been in the heat of battle, who understand the consequences of decisions that we make in this town and how it has an impact and ramifications for everybody who actually has to execute our national security strategies, that’s something invaluable.  It will provide me the kinds of insights that I need in making very difficult decisions, but it will also mean that these folks are going to be looking out for the people who work for them.  And that’s something that, I think, in these leadership positions is absolutely critical.



  2. Duane, your link to the “article at Salon” would be required reading by any professor wanting his class to understand the context of what is at stake here. Hell, this thing reads like a Hemingway novel! Chuck Hagel is a smart, perspicacious and brave man who has experienced war at its grittiest worst. What better qualification could there be, I submit, for a man to head the most powerful institution of warfare in history? Thanks for this insight.



      I felt the same way, after reading it, Jim. It seemed like fiction to me. What a story, and after reading it, I had such respect for all the kids in the Hagel family, and, of course, for their mother. Wow.


  3. I think he’s a good choice, and I’d call myself a conservative lurker. Though I might not be welcome in the club.


  4. Especially since I find myself agreeing the late George McGovern about the tragedy of old men dreaming up wars for young men to go to an early grave in.


    • I like that reference to George McGovern’s wisdom, Bruce. Makes me wonder about Mali, where a remarkable resurgence of al Qaeda is taking place and causing Europe to commit airplanes in the air and boots on the ground. Is this the new Afghanistan? As we watch how Obama deals with it I submit that we should also reflect on how Cowboy diplomacy might approach it differently.


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