On hearing of the birth of his granddaughter, President Herbert Hoover was reputed to have said, “Thank God she doesn’t have to be confirmed by the Senate.”
In that regard, perhaps not much has changed in Washington since the 31st president’s time, although the whole process seems more fractious than ever before, especially in today’s media-drenched environment.
In the past month we have seen an unprecedented public vetting, a virtual “trial in absentia” of two potential cabinet nominees: U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for secretary of state and former Senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense. These searing spectacles were painful to watch, and they will make more than a few future public servants think twice about subjecting themselves to such battles.
Last week, President Obama did the right thing and finally nominated Senator Hagel for secretary of defense. Whatever happens, President Obama is in a no-lose situation. If Hagel is confirmed, the president gets his choice—a brave and seasoned foreign policy and defense expert. If Hagel is rejected—and this move would only be led by Hagel’s own party—President Obama will likely watch the inevitable weakening of the GOP, as disgusted Republican moderates think yet again about the direction of their party.
Most of the opposition to Hagel’s nomination has been centered around his views on Israeli security and his attitude toward gay public servants. By now the country’s A-list of elder statesmen and analysts have refuted the accusations against the former senator. Additionally, both AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel interest group, and the Human Rights Campaign, the influential gay-equality group, have indicated that they will not oppose Hagel’s confirmation.
Despite what should be a resolution of these concerns, there are still those who charge that Hagel’s thinking on military policy is “outside the mainstream” on defense spending and nuclear developments in Iran. Ironically, even the Defense Department has acknowledged that it is “bloated,” and while some policymakers have blasted Hagel for seeking direct negotiations with Iran over its contested nuclear program, they would do well to look to the past. Throughout the Cold War, Republicans and Democrats alike met repeatedly with their Soviet counterparts, even though the Communist ideology and the Soviets’ possession of the hydrogen bomb were existential threats to the United States.
On the issue of sanctions, Hagel’s approach also has its place in our national security traditions. All thinking politicians have grappled with finding the right balance between diplomatic pressure and the threat or use of military force. Unilateral measures, without an international agreement to impose them, can potentially have counterproductive results—which might range from reducing the U.S.’s maneuvering room to producing an indigenous groundswell of support for a besieged authoritarian regime. Hagel has been right to think in a nuanced way. In policy terms this has always been, apparently until recently, a highly prized attribute. This also happens to be where most ordinary Americans stand today.
I have known and worked with Senator Hagel for decades now, first when he served as a board member of the Eisenhower Institute, later during his time in the Senate, and then again when we both served on the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future. He is a man who has always put his country first. Like those of the greatest generation before him, he knows of the cost and unpredictability of war. He is ready to wage war if necessary, but not until other measures have been tried. He is a veteran, a pragmatist and a staunch supporter of this country’s allies, including Israel. The smear campaign that has been underway is the work of a small group of people in pursuit of their own power. A vocal minority should not be allowed to derail his nomination.
At the end of the day, however, the impact of the Hagel nomination could well be about the future of the Republican Party.
The Republican Party is now at a crossroads. Over the last decade moderate Republicans have felt increasingly out of place in its ranks. If the GOP confirms Hagel, it could bolster the idea of a “big tent” Republican Party. A GOP-led rejection of a Republican war hero with impeccable centrist credentials, however, could well be a fatal blow to that concept, along with some of the party’s longest and most successful traditions.
On the nomination of Hagel, GOP Minority Leader Mitch McConnell—who has been an admirer of Senator Hagel in the past—vowed that Hagel would get a “fair hearing” when he comes before the Senate. This is reassuring indeed. President Obama deserves to have his selection of Hagel confirmed by the Senate. But if the Republicans block his confirmation, watch while more loyal rank and file GOP moderates flee the party for independent status.