Columns / Discourse / January 16, 2013

Debating columnists: Secretary of Defense

That’s a phrase coined by J Street, a pro-Israel American advocacy group, to support the nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense. Designed to counter the neoconservative attacks on Hagel, the campaign will donate one bagel to a D.C.-area food bank for every 18 responses.

J Street entered into the fray because Hagel’s positions on Israel have become central to the nomination fight.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, wrote in an email announcing the campaign that “Chuck Hagel is a dedicated public servant, a war hero and an independent voice dedicated to our country. He’s been a true friend of Israel, the Jewish people and an advocate for a negotiated two-state solution. That’s why we’re fighting back against the lies.”

The GOP’s intransigence on this issue is yet another indication that they are more interested in opposing any position taken by President Barack Obama than they are in governing.

With a saner group of legislators, Hagel’s confirmation would be a breeze. He’s a Republican nominated by a Democratic president.

That’s built-in bipartisan support. He’s also a decorated Vietnam War veteran — two Purple Hearts — who has proven to be a dedicated public servant, serving in the Senate for twelve years. While in the Senate, he served on both the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Select Committee on Intelligence.

But bipartisan support and stellar experience aren’t enough for today’s GOP. They’re set on opposing Obama at all costs, so they’ve decided to grossly misrepresent several of Hagel’s statements and positions to portray him as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel.

The most indefensible of Hagel’s statements is his 2006 comment about the “Jewish lobby” in Washington. A regrettable choice of words, but not proof that he is necessarily anti-Semitic or anti-Israel.

Hagel should have been more precise with his criticism, referring to the specific pro-Israel  lobbying groups by name. All supporters of Israel are not necessarily Jewish, nor are all Jewish Americans aligned completely with the policies of Israel. I fully agree that Hagel should have made this distinction in his commentary.

But an errant comment shouldn’t keep him from assuming the role of Defense Secretary. While many would counter that some of Hagel’s actions — opposition to certain sanctions against Iran, for instance — confirm that he is anti-Israel, in reality they show that he is an independent-minded politician who is willing to voice his view that Israeli foreign policy and American foreign policy needn’t always align.

Conservatives have also honed in on a seemingly damning detail: that Hagel didn’t sign a 1999 Senate petition asking Boris Yeltsin to combat Russian anti-Semitism. According to details uncovered by BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski, Hagel had a policy of not signing letters to foreign heads of state. Instead, he wrote a letter directly to President Clinton urging the president to oppose anti-Semitism in Russia.

“Anti-Semitism or any form of religious persecution should never be tolerated,” Hagel wrote in the letter.
These unfortunate attacks on Hagel are detracting from what really should be our main focus: how the next Defense Secretary will handle major cuts in military spending. It’s likely that any future deficit-reduction deal will include major spending cuts, the brunt of which will fall on the military’s bloated budget.

Hagel, who staunchly opposed the Iraq War, has publicly stated that he is in favor of shrinking the size of our military. In a 2012 interview with the Financial Times, Hagel said, “I think the military needs to be pared down. I don’t think the military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically in a long, long time.”

Hagel is exactly the sort of politician — experienced, principled and independent — the country needs in the Defense Department right now. As a country struggling to rein in future deficit spending, his record favoring sensible cuts to the military should make those discussions more sophisticated and sensible.

Joshua Gunter
Joshua Gunter was the liberal half of "Debating Columnists" during fall 2012 and winter 2013. He graduated in winter 2013 with a degree in art history and currently works as an account researcher for the Brunswick Group in New York City. At Knox, he also served as co-editor-in-chief of Catch magazine.

Tags:  democrat Hagel Israel nomination obama party Republican Secretary of Defense

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