Numerous reports from Friday indicate that President Obama, possibly as early as Monday, will name Chuck Hagel as his nominee to replace Leon Panetta as Defense Secretary. Many of the most right-wing GOP Senators have already categorically vowed that they will oppose the nomination of this decorated combat veteran and two-term GOP Senator from Nebraska, claiming he's hostile to Israel, "soft" on Iran and anti-military. Hagel's confirmation thus likely hinges on the willingness of Democrats to support it.
But before Hagel was nominated, numerous Democratic partisans and various liberals already expressed reservations or even outright opposition. Some of those, such as Sen. Chuck Schumer and Rep. Eliot Engel, are driven (as usual) by the same mentality driving neocons: they're worried that Hagel is a dissident when it comes to the bipartisan DC orthodoxy mandating lockstep, unquestioning support for the militarism and aggression of the Israeli government. There will be ample debate on these questions coming soon (I discussed those issues a couple of weeks ago on Chris Hayes' show).
But for other progressives, concerns over Hagel have nothing to do with Israel. They have instead expressed two unrelated objections: (1) back in 1998 – 15 years ago – Hagel voted against James Hormel as Ambassador to Luxembourg on the ground that Hormel, as Hagel put it, was "openly, aggressively gay" (for that concern, see Barney Frank, who completely reversed himself on Hagel from two weeks ago, and Rachel Maddow); and (2) Hagel is a Republican, and Obama should nominate a Democrat in order to show that Democrats are capable of running the Pentagon and military policy (see Markos Moultisas and Daily Kos).
For the moment, let us concede that there is validity to both concerns. In context, how significant are they?
When it comes to LGBT equality, 1998 is a different universe. Virtually no prominent Democrats (let alone Republicans) supported marriage equality back then, or even equal rights for LGBT citizens. In fact, Hagel's comment came only two years after the overwhelming majority of Democratic Senatorsvoted in favor of the truly odious and discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act – including Joe Biden, Patty Murray, Pat Leahy and Paul Wellstone – which was then signed into law by Bill Clinton. That law not only defined marriage as between a man and a woman, but barred the federal government from issuing any spousal benefits – immigration, tax, death benefits – to same-sex couples. If you're going to judge politicians by how they felt about LGBT issues 15 years ago, be prepared to scorn almost every national Democratic Party hero you have as a bigot.
In fact, back in 2008 – only four years ago – here's what Barack Obama, speaking on CNN in front of Rev. Rick Warren's Christian group, had to saywhen Warren asked him why he opposes same-sex marriage:
"I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it's also a sacred union.God is in the mix."
The very idea that secular law should deny equal rights to LGBT citizens because Obama's religion teaches that God frowns upon homosexuality is both offensive and warped. Yet almost nobody (including me) entertained the idea that Obama's candidacy should be opposed due to his overt, toxic advocacy of anti-gay discrimination. And that was only four years ago, not fifteen.
So yes: like virtually every prominent politician in both parties, Chuck Hagel had primitive and ugly views on gay issues back in 1998. But shouldn't the question be: does he still hold these views or, like huge numbers of Americans, have his viewed evolved since then? Hagel has apologized for what he said, an apology which Hormel accepted, graciously noting: "I can't remember a time when a potential presidential nominee apologized for anything . . . .Since 1998, fourteen years have passed, and public attitudes have shifted–perhaps Senator Hagel has progressed with the times, too." Moreover, Hagel last week also vowed that he is "fully supportive of 'open service' and committed to LGBT military families."
The openly gay foreign policy insider, Steve Clemons, has known Hagel for years, and two weeks ago wrote in the Atlantic that "Chuck Hagel is pro-gay, pro-LGBT, pro-ending 'don't ask, don't tell.'" Beyond his policy views, Clemons recounted personal incident after personal incident that completely negates the accusation that Hagel now harbors bigotry toward gay people.
Given how progressives assess other politicians, why should Hagel not be forgiven or at least be given the benefit of the doubt? Look at what Democrats are willing to forgive and forget. They swoon for Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, who in 2002 voted to authorize George Bush's attack on Iraq, surely a far worse offense than Hagel's ugly comments about Hormel. They overlook Biden's obnoxious 2006 comments about Indian-Americans and Obama'spatronizing and sexist use of "sweetie" to dismiss a female reporter in 2008. They adore the top Democrat in the Senate, Harry Reid, who opposes a woman's right to choose. They even forgave long-time Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd for his past membership in the Ku Klux Klan. Where does Hagel's 1998 comment rank with those bad acts?
Then there's the issue of Hagel's party affiliation. The perception that Republicans are more trustworthy than Democrats on military issues – and that Democratic presidents thus had to rely on Republicans to run the Pentagon – was indeed both pervasive and baseless. But that, too, has changed: the outgoing Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, is as loyal and partisan a Democrat as it gets, and nobody objected to his selection.
But much more importantly: when it comes to issues such as war, militarism, defense spending and Middle East policy, isn't substance much more significant than whether someone has an "R" or "D" after their name? As Obama himself proves – and as Biden and Clinton before him proved – the fact that someone has a "D" after their name is hardly a guarantor that they will oppose policies of aggression and militarism. Indeed, as Clemons said Friday night on MSNBC, most Democrats in the Pentagon are so afraid of being cast as "soft on defense" that they hug policies of militarism far more eagerly and unquestioningly than Chuck Hagel ever would. Is partisan identity so all-consuming that it completely trumps substance, so that a hawkish Democrat is preferable to a war-skeptic Republican?
There's a reason Hagel's nomination has become so intensely controversial and such a vicious target for war-cheering neocons such as Bill Kristol andthe Washington Post Editorial Board. It's because Hagel is one of the very, very few prominent national politicians from either party who has been brave enough to question and dissent from the destructive bipartisan orthodoxies on foreign policy. What plausible Democratic candidate for this job has been willing publicly to point out that the US and Israel are separate countries and American interests should trump Israeli interests when they conflict, or to advocate for direct negotiations with Hamas, or to candidly point out that America's Middle East wars are fought for oil, or to condemn the power of the pro-Israel lobby within both parties, or to harshly point out the stupidity of attacking Iran rather than cowardly mouth the "all-options-on-the-table" platitude?
Anyone on the left who suggested in the run-up to the 2012 election that principled opposition to Obama's policies meant they would not vote for his re-election was instantly attacked as irrational. One cannot simply focus on Obama's flaws, they were instructed, but rather must consider the plausible alternatives. Fine: let's apply this standard to the Hagel nomination.
All of the Democratic alternatives to Hagel who have been seriously mentioned are nothing more than standard foreign policy technocrats, fully on-board with the DC consensus regarding war, militarism, Israel, Iran, and the Middle East. That's why Kristol, the Washington Post and other neocons were urging Obama to select them rather than Hagel: because those neocons know that, unlike Hagel, these Democratic technocrats pose no challenge whatsoever to their agenda of sustaining destructive US policy in the Middle East and commitment to endless war.
Do progressives even pretend any longer to care about any of these issues: about war, militarism, lockstep support for Israel, belligerence toward Iran, a refusal to negotiate with America's "enemies"? Even if you disagree with my views on whether Hagel's record on gays and his partisan affiliation are problematic, shouldn't you have to weigh those concerns against the issues that the Pentagon principally affects: the record of Hagel – as opposed to Michele Flournoy, Ashton Carter, or the other plausible nominees – on issues of war. foreign policy and militarism?
Denial of LGBT equality under the law is probably the political issue that has the single greatest negative impact on my life. Whether someone harbors anti-gay views matters to me greatly. But it's far from the only issue I care about. I also care about putting a stop to America's posture of endless war and militarism, and ceasing our antagonizing of the entire Muslim world (and large parts of the rest of the world) through lockstep support for indefensible Israeli policies of aggression and annexation, and avoiding a military attack on Iran, and significantly cutting military spending, and attempting a negotiated peace with America's varied "enemies".
When it comes to deciding who should run the Defense Department, how can it be justified simply to ignore all of that – literally ignore it – in favor of fixation on a comment from Hagel 15 years ago or which partisan letter follows his name? Here we have one of the only opportunities in years to have a (relative) war skeptic and mild dissident on Israel and MidEast policy running the Pentagon – one who is uniquely situated and brave enough to voice those critiques given his status as combat hero – and liberals are really going to devote themselves to helping neocons destroy that nominee and, along with him, destroy this rare and otherwise unavailable opportunity?
The benefits of a Hagel nomination shouldn't be overstated. As I said last week, I agree with those who doubt that Hagel will have any real impact on restraining Obama's aggressive and imperialistic foreign policies.
Moreover, despite the above-reference differences, Hagel in general issquarely within the DC foreign policy consensus on most issues (Obama would never nominate someone who isn't). It's quite likely that in his confirmation process, he'll conform as much as possible to DC orthodoxies in order to ensure confirmation. Democratic Party advocates will defend him on the cowardly ground that he affirms those orthodoxies, not on the ground that it is permissible let alone desirable to question them. It seems likely that Obama wants Hagel not due to Iran or Hamas but primarily because, as a combat veteran, he will be helpful in trying to facilitate a withdrawal from Afghanistan over strong military and hawkish objections. And there's only so much influence a single Cabinet member can have on administration policy.
But at the very least, Hagel's confirmation will be a much-needed declaration that some mild dissent on foreign policy orthodoxies and Israel is permitted. It will shatter AIPAC's veto power and dilute the perception of the so-called "pro-Israel community's" unchallengeable power. It will ensure that there is at leastsome diversity of viewpoints when it comes to debating endless war, belligerence v. negotiations, and MidEast policy. It will highlight the typically-suppressed differences within the GOP and the country about America's war posture. In sum, as Matt Duss very persuasively detailed in the American Prospect, Hagel's confirmation would bring some incremental though potentially substantial benefits.
Given the steadfast and usually unquestioning support most liberals have given this Democratic President as he's pursued policies of aggression and militarism, they should refrain from opposing one of the few prominent dissidents on these matters absent some very compelling reasons. So far, nothing remotely compelling has been offered. If this nomination actually happens, this will be one of Obama's best appointments and boldest steps of his presidency. It would be ironic indeed, and more than a bit unfortunate, if liberals decide to make this nomination one of the very few times they are willing to oppose their party's leader.