Nominating Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense may be the oddest thing President Obama has ever done. I don’t mean it’s the worst thing he’s ever done — merely that it’s the hardest to explain, and the most at odds with his general political character. People on the left who hate Obama’s general political character will be happy. Since I’m pretty happy with Obama’s general political character, it strikes me as at least a moderately bad idea.
The prospect of Hagel’s nomination has led to conservatives smearing him as an Israel-hater and even an anti-Semite. The smear campaign has been led by Bill Kristol and the fine family of Kristol-affiliated agitprop outlets — the Weekly Standard, the Center for American Freedom, the Washington Free Beacon, the Emergency Committee for Israel, and so on — some of which pretend to be intellectually reputable enterprises, and others of which don’t.
That smear campaign has, in turn, been met with a counter-campaign on the left to rally around Hagel. But as David Greenberg has observed, a strong undercurrent of enemy-of-my-enemy thinking seems to undergird the pro-Hagel argument. (See, for instance, James Fallows and Connie Bruck, among many others.) Jill Lawrence’s list of reasons for Obama to appoint Hagel begins, “Obama does not want to be seen as caving twice to GOP attacks, Rice followed by Hagel.” The rest of the reasons mostly describe qualities that other candidates could fulfill just as easily. Hagel’s status as smear target is the one that sets him apart.
But of course getting smeared by Kristol is not really a special qualification. Lots of people have done it. One might argue that Obama needs to establish the precedent that he has latitude to make appointments for himself, rather than let Republicans pick his cabinet for him. That might have made sense as a defense of Susan Rice, a fully qualified prospective secretary of State whom Obama did not select in the wake of utterly bogus attacks linking her to Benghazi, which seemed to stem from John McCain’s cranky grudges.
Hagel, by contrast, has supplied his critics with legitimate grounds for opposition in addition to illegitimate ones. Hagel has assailed “the Jewish lobby,” which is not a disqualifying gaffe but is at least a somewhat creepy one, akin to describing civil-rights organizations as the “black lobby.” (Hagel says he misspoke, but to accept that at face value is to apply a leniency about these sorts of comments that liberals don’t usually offer.) More significant is that Hagel has opposed sanctions on Iran, a position at odds with Obama’s own.
Hagel’s allies on the left are very eager to stretch the boundaries of the foreign policy debate leftward. And some are so freaked out by the prospect of war with Iran they oppose even steps short of war itself.
Why, though, should Obama have to defend positions he doesn’t agree with? Why waste political capital picking a fight that isn’t essential to any policy goals?
Michael Lewis reported last year that Obama completely circumvented the advice of most of his cabinet on Libya, demanding options that they were not presenting him with that might actually have halted the impending slaughter in Benghazi. The episode shows two things. First, Obama is not at heart the dovish left-realist that Hagel seems to have become, cynical about idealistic goals and deeply skeptical about the use of force. And Obama, despite his lack of foreign policy experience before assuming the presidency, is also not dependent on his advisers to tell him what to do. No actual parts of Obama’s agenda would seem to require Hagel in the Pentagon. And if Obama has been ruthless about one thing, it’s avoiding side fights that aren’t necessary steps to achieve a concrete goal. So why Hagel?