In the three weeks since Chuck Hagel’s name emerged as President Barack Obama’s likely choice as the next secretary of defense, there's been a lively, if lopsided, debate about his qualifications for the job. The debate’s been lopsided because the arguments for Hagel have been so startlingly weak. It’s not just that those arguing for Hagel form an unusually motley crew, even by the standards of the anti-Israel swamp in which many of them frolic. What's striking about the case for Hagel is its absence. His backers can cite no significant legislation for which Hagel was responsible in his two terms in the Senate. They can quote no memorable speeches that Hagel delivered and can cite no profound passages from the book he authored. They can summarize no perceptive Hagelian analysis of defense or foreign policy, and can appeal to no acts of management or leadership by the man they'd have as our next secretary of defense.
The fact is that those legislative achievements, intellectual insights, or management triumphs don't exist. A long and comprehensive history of the Senate during Chuck Hagel's tenure there could be written that would barely mention him. A long and comprehensive account of American foreign and defense policy in the last thirty years would hardly note his existence.
So even if one left aside Chuck Hagel's dangerous views on Iran and his unpleasant distaste for Israel and Jews, a dispassionate analyst would have to conclude that the case for Hagel is extraordinarily weak. A host of individuals who've served in the Pentagon during President Obama's first term—like Deputy Secretary Ashton Carter, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and former Undersecretary for Policy Michèle Flournoy—are more qualified than Chuck Hagel to serve as the next secretary of defense. So are Clinton administration Defense Department veterans like Richard Danzig, John Hamre, and Joseph Nye. So are former legislators like Olympia Snowe, Sam Nunn, Dick Gephardt, and Bill Bradley. So are others from the private and public sector.
Or look at it this way. Over the last four decades, the following dozen men have served as the United States Secretary of Defense: Elliot Richardson, James Schlesinger, Donald Rumsfeld (twice), Harold Brown, Cap Weinberger, Frank Carlucci, Dick Cheney, Les Aspin, Bill Perry, Bill Cohen, Bob Gates, and Leon Panetta. They were all impressive public servants. Chuck Hagel clearly falls short of all of them in stature and distinction.
So why Hagel? Well, if you read the oeuvre of Hagel's defenders, you'll see that Hagel must be appointed in order to spite many of his critics, whom they deeply dislike. Hagel’s defenders are welcome to their dislikes. But dislike of hawks, neocons, or friends of Israel isn't really a good reason to select Chuck Hagel. And there's something comical about many of the defenses of Hagel. His defenders rise up in high dudgeon to condemn Hagel's critics as smear merchants for criticizing Hagel as anti-Israel and soft on Iran—and then, if they're among the honest Hagel defenders, they praise Hagel for being anti-Israel and soft on Iran.
The fact is, criticism of Hagel has been substantive—focused on his out of the mainstream votes and his distasteful quotations, as well as his general lack of distinction. And the critics have also focused on the fact that the position being discussed is that of secretary of defense. No one would care if the president wanted to send Hagel off to openly and aggressively make the case for Obama's foreign policy as ambassador to Luxembourg. But the secretary of defense has real responsibilities. Even his nomination has real consequences. In fact, nominating a person who is clearly soft on Iran would send exactly the wrong message to Tehran. Which is why President Obama should prevail in not nominating Hagel in the first place, and why members of Congress of both parties who have been engaged in the attempt to deter Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons should be particularly alarmed at a Hagel nomination.
It looks, though, as if President Obama may be determined to nominate Chuck Hagel. If he does, he will be doing himself and the nation a disservice. The next secretary of defense should be a well-respected mainstream national security leader, not an out-of-the-mainstream mediocrity. So if the president nominates Chuck Hagel, we would expect a vigorous examination of the Hagel record by senators of both parties, followed by the United States Senate withholding its consent to his selection as secretary of defense. This would give the president another chance to select a man or woman of distinction for this high office, one who would command widespread support and would be confirmed easily. And this would be a better outcome for our military, the Defense Department, and the nation.