Jan. 14 (Bloomberg) -- The nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary could generate an important debate over national security. That will only happen if critics skip sideshows such as ridiculous accusations that he is anti- Semitic or pro-terrorist and avoid cherry picking his votes.
The real debate is whether to return to the early foreign policy of President George W. Bush -- a unilateral, aggressive interventionism requiring a robust military machine -- or adopt a more selective approach in which the U.S. is the dominant force in the world but depends on alliances and sets priorities.
“This battle has not as much to do with Chuck Hagel or any comments he made on Israel,” says Joseph Nye, a former top Defense Department official who teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. “This is about re-litigating major changes in foreign policy.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who has supported most Obama administration Cabinet nominees, should have credibility when he assails the choice of his former Senate colleague. “Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream,” Graham says, “on most issues regarding foreign policy.”
Nonetheless, Graham and other critics, in particular the so-called neo-conservatives who dominated Bush’s first term, obfuscate the central issues with dubious, duplicitous charges.
Hagel is accused of being anti-Israel. “He would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward Israel in our nation’s history,” Graham charges.
More antagonistic than the third defense secretary, George Catlett Marshall, who once told his commander in chief, President Harry Truman, that he’d vote against his re-election if the U.S. recognized the state of Israel?
Hagel once carelessly referred to the “Jewish lobby” to describe the powerful pro-Israel lobby in Washington. That prompts neo-cons such as Elliott Abrams, who served in foreign policy positions for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, to call him anti-Semitic, an outlandish fabrication.
In two Senate terms, Hagel voted for every measure containing aid to Israel. He is a critic of some of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin’s Netanyahu’s policies; so is President Barack Obama.
The Nebraska lawmaker’s conversion to opponent of the Iraq war rankles neo-cons, especially his criticism of the troop surge in 2007. “I’ll have a hard time supporting anybody to be secretary of defense who believes the surge was a foreign policy blunder,” Graham says.
Yet Graham says he supports the nomination of Senator John Kerry to be secretary of state. The Massachusetts Democrat opposed the surge, as did Republican senators such as Susan Collins of Maine and Norman Coleman of Minnesota, as well as Democrats such as Joe Biden of Delaware, Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois.
As secretary, Hagel, a 66-year-old decorated Vietnam combat veteran, will face huge budget and spending priorities decisions; he’ll have to enlist deputies better versed in Pentagonese.
That concerns Graham and other neo-cons who see America as under siege and the only guarantor of freedom in a world beset by a plethora of threats: Iran and North Korea developing nuclear weapons; terrorism; Afghanistan hanging in the balance; the unraveling of the Arab spring and the rise of China.
In contrast to Hagel -- or the president -- they express few reservations about intervening in places such as Syria or carrying out a military strike against Iran’s nuclear capacity. In the Middle East, they are unswervingly pro-Israel.
These policies require an ability to simultaneously take action in multiple trouble spots, which means a beefed-up Pentagon budget, and more forces and weapons.
Hagel and Obama aren’t completely in sync; the president seems to take a harder line on dealing with Iran, though he also believes sanctions and pressure might succeed. On Israel, both are generally supportive, with reservations about the current Israeli government’s policies.
Hagel and Obama believe that the U.S. can’t police the world, that multilateral alliances are central to a successful foreign policy and that new policy priorities -- foremost in Asia -- and that a leaner military budget are inevitable.
“They believe in a more efficient, as opposed to just a greater, use of American power,” says Nye, who supports Hagel, with whom he served on the Defense Policy Board.
He sees the Nebraska Republican, out of sync with his own party today, as emblematic of President Dwight Eisenhower’s foreign policy of the 1950s. “Ike felt that forces of occupation in poor countries where they are not welcome are losing propositions,” Nye says. (Eisenhower’s granddaughter has championed Hagel’s nomination.)
Graham’s charge that Hagel is “out of the mainstream” is refuted by the nominee’s roster of supporters, including prominent Republicans such as former Secretary of State Colin Powell, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, former homeland security chief Tom Ridge and former Defense Secretary Bob Gates. Hagel also has the backing of leading Democrats, including former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and top defense experts in the Senate, Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Carl Levin of Michigan, along with more than a dozen former top generals and prominent ambassadors, including six who served in Israel.
The public, on issues ranging from the value of the Iraq war to remaining in Afghanistan to the size of the defense budget, appears more in tune with Hagel than with the neo-cons. Israel has strong support; an attack on Iran doesn’t.
The nominee will be confirmed and a healthy debate over these matters might show the public who is the more mainstream: Hagel or Graham.
(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)