The idea of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska succeeding Leon Panetta at the Pentagon is, as the fictional king of Siam once put it, a puzzlement. Friends of Israel are up in arms at the prospect, but Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times thinks he's just the sort of contrarian element the Obama White House requires. Meanwhile, former Rep. Barney Frank still resents Hagel's bigoted opposition to a gay diplomatic appointee. So the fight is on.
I tend to believe that presidents are entitled, within reason and with considerable latitude, to populate their cabinets with whomever they want. But senior political appointments—whether to the cabinet, sub-cabinet, Supreme Court, or the diplomatic corps—are no longer pro forma, if they ever were; and not so long ago (1989) a Democratic Senate rejected the veteran Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (John Tower) when President George H.W. Bush appointed him to be secretary of defense. Nothing is sacred.
Which makes the president's action, in this instance, doubly inexplicable. First, by ‘floating’ the name of Susan Rice to succeed Hillary Clinton at the State Department, Obama left Rice publicly vulnerable to her critics, and allowed opposition to build. Now, by similarly floating a name for the Pentagon, Obama has subjected Hagel to the same political hazards that undermined Rice—and with comparable results. If Hagel withdraws from contention, or is defeated in the Senate, Obama's choices for two senior cabinet offices will have crashed and burned—a striking demonstration of presidential weakness just a few week's after the president was reelected to office.
Of greater concern, however, is Chuck Hagel himself. Policy and personal opinions aside, he is, by any measure, an eccentric choice to run the vast defense establishment. Since the consolidation of the services in 1947, and the creation of the Department of Defense, secretaries have fallen into three distinct categories: Senior statesmen types (James Forrestal, George C. Marshall, Robert Lovett, Clark Clifford, Caspar Weinberger), experienced/admired politicians (Melvin Laird, Dick Cheney, Les Aspin, Donald Rumsfeld, William Cohen, Leon Panetta), and businessmen/defense bureaucrats (Charles Wilson, Robert McNamara, James Schlesinger, Harold Brown, William Perry, Robert Gates).
Hagel falls onto none of these lists. Not every two-term senator earns statesman status; and even in the Senate, Hagel was considerably more active on the Banking Committee (where, as an ex-businessman, he was ranking Republican on the subcommittee on financial institutions) than with anything connected to defense or foreign relations. It is true that Hagel served in the Army in Vietnam, and was awarded two Purple Hearts; but John Tower, after all, was a veteran of World War II.
It is likely that Hagel's appeal to Barack Obama derives from his status as a sometime Republican critic of the foreign and defense policies of the Bush administration, especially after the Iraq war. Presumably this gives him a certain ‘independent’ status; but it scarcely endears him to former Republican colleagues in Congress, and would hardly set him apart within the Obama White House. Hagel is equally famous for his choleric temperament and occasional offhand pronouncements that offend such loyal Democrats as Barney Frank. Simply stated, there is no evidence that Chuck Hagel has the experience or temperament to master the gigantic defense establishment, or deal effectively with Congress on delicate issues. On the contrary, there is every indication that he would quickly suffocate in the details of running the Pentagon, and run afoul of his political masters in the White House.
The last Republican senator to be nominated defense secretary in a Democratic administration was William Cohen of Maine—an altogether different sort of personality than Hagel, and essentially window-dressing during Bill Clinton's second term. But there is also a more dangerous precedent. The second secretary of defense, Louis Johnson, was a lawyer (co-founder of Steptoe & Johnson) and New Deal political operative who served as Harry Truman's chief fundraiser in 1948. Johnson presided over a massive demobilization of the armed services, in the aftermath of World War II; and when war in Korea broke out in June 1950, had neither the personal capacity nor professional resources to direct an effective American response. With American troops in danger of defeat, and Johnson close to nervous collapse, Truman dismissed him—and turned, yet again, to the retired General George C. Marshall to clean up the mess.