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Defending Hagel’s Nomination

President Barrack Obama nominated Senator John Kerry to serve as Secretary of State, who has since been confirmed. President Obama’s other nominee, former Senator Chuck Hagel, is currently going through the same process. What do these selections say about the President, and what kinds of policies can we expect them to pursue?

Both Kerry and Hagel fought in the Vietnam War, where they both received multiple Purple Hearts and other combat medals for courageous service. Hagel, in an interview with ABC News, described being wounded by shrapnel, only to have his brother drag him to safely. A month later, a land mine exploded, setting Hagel on fire, but he dragged his brother, bloody and unconscious, to safety. During his confirmation, Hagel said, “I always ask the question is this going to be worth the sacrifice, because there will be sacrifice.” This is a man who knows, first-hand, the sacrifices made during armed conflict.

Iran, one of the most important geopolitical issues facing the United States, would benefit from a Secretary of Defense who takes a very careful, considered view of the long-term effects of policy decisions. In 2003, before the Iraq War had begun, Hagel said,

“If disarmament in Iraq requires the use of force, we need to consider carefully the implications and consequences of our actions. How many of us really know and understand much about Iraq, the country, the history, the people, the role in the Arab world? I approach the issue of post-Saddam Iraq and the future of democracy and stability in the Middle East with more caution, realism, and a bit more humility."

This is a man who understands that even global policy plays out on an individual level, in societies that are complex and different from our own. Caution, realism, and humility are virtues. Precisely because of the immense power of the United States of America, this is the man we need, someone skeptical of conventional wisdom, who will bring nuance and experience to the office of the Secretary of Defense.

The world of politics is dominated by conventional wisdom, which explains some of the opposition to Hagel’s nomination. A former Republican Senator from Nebraska, the Cato Institute noted that Hagel has “a lifetime rating of 84 percent from the American Conservative Union and consistent A and B grades from the National Taxpayers Union,” and that “his actual record is more traditionally Republican than the policies of the Bush-Cheney administration.” Why then, do so many Republicans oppose his nomination?

Amy Davidson of The New Yorker suggests that there are both substantial and insubstantial aspects to the opposition. On one hand, precisely because of Hagel’s “Republicanism,” he poses a problem. Willam Kristol, a prominent Republican, can’t stand the idea of Democrats in general—or Obama specifically—getting any “credit for bipartisanship.” Furthermore, they can’t imagine what kind of Republican would want to work with the Democrats. This childish sense of betrayal - answering a call to duty issued by the President of the United States - has caused some nonsensical statements to emerge from the Republican camp. In the words of William Kristol, “a mainstream liberal at the Pentagon—will still be problematic, but will better serve the nation.” When a Republican claims that a “mainstream liberal” would be better than a Republican, it becomes clear that these attacks have nothing to do with Hagel’s policies, but rather represent the bitter recriminations of a political party that has turned on one of its own. However, notes Amy Davidson, “Hagel might not be properly excited for a military strike against Iran.” As a veteran of the Vietnam War, who has been conscious of the price we have paid in Iraq, it is natural, prudent, and right for the Secretary of Defense to be skeptical about a military strike on Iran.

Secretary of State Kerry said during his confirmation hearings that he would work to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. What does this mean for Israel? Reuters reported that, “Unlike last time around, [Obama] is going to be quite patient and deliberate in avoiding the mistakes he made during his previous run.” Having learned a lesson from the failed Mideast gambit of his first term, Obama’s choice of Kerry, who has “deep knowledge of the issue and its players” from “having watched the peace process unfold, and unravel, from his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee over the last three decades,” ought to inspire confidence in Obama’s pick. Kerry seems aware of the limitations of attempting to suddenly impose peace in a complicated region with complicated groups.

There could be “a willingness on the part of the president to have the Secretary of State try again, but rather than jump in, [...] it's likely to be a testing of the waters," said Indyk, the former top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East as well as a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, as reported by Reuters. Kerry and Hagel’s combined approach of caution, attention to detail, and long-term thinking ought to inspire confidence in the leadership of the United States.

Some have expressed doubts about Hagel’s support of Israel. But those personally aware of his integrity and effectiveness dismiss these concerns. As reported by CBS, Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush, called the criticism “terribly misguided.” “I found him in all the three years I served, including as ambassador to Israel, to be a supporter of Israel [...].” In Hagel’s book, “America: Our Next Chapter,” Hagel writes: “there will always be a special and historic bond with Israel,” and “a comprehensive solution should not include any compromise regarding Israel's Jewish identity, which must be assured. The Israeli people must be free to live in peace and security.” Hagel’s stated commitment to the American-Israeli relationship, Israel’s security, and the Jewish character of the State of Israel ought to be the final word on his stance towards Israel.

Despite the fact that AIPAC has not opposed the confirmation of either Hagel or Kerry, some people are worried about the policies that either of them would initiate with regards to Israel. The fact that many seemingly well-meaning people who support Israel thought to spread fear based on hearsay of the nominees ought to worry us. Their tactics and claims ought to be examined for shallow partisan biases. Sophistication, critical thinking, and independent thinking ought to be deployed by the people who truly support Israel. Yaakov Amidror, Israeli National Security Adviser to Benjamin Netanyahu, is no leftist. Yet he warns that "construction in West Bank settlements is causing Israel to lose the support of even its best friends in the West." If so, getting ahead of the curve, rather than waiting for the Western world to become fed up, would be the prudent move for Israel and her supporters.

The offices of Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State of the United States are tremendously important positions. We need clear-minded people thinking about how Russia and China would respond to America’s foreign policy, one which extends globally—far beyond the Middle East. For Israel’s best interests, America needs to be positioned globally, so that America is in a position to support its allies. For America’s best interests, what matters is the competence and integrity of the public servants who have been selected for some of the most important roles in protecting freedom across the world.

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