Chuck Hagel, the Multi-Faceted Symbol

One of the things I missed by taking a week off shortly before Christmas was the growing furor over an increasingly likely Obama appointment of Chuck Hagel as successor to Leon Panetta at the Pentagon. At one point it looked like a Hagel nomination would arouse as much bipartisan opposition as support (the progressive case against Hagel was emphatically stated here at PA by Kathleen Geier).

Now there is a powerful push on Hagel’s behalf emanating from center-left precincts of the punditry, most of it based on the belief that the Nebraskan’s appointment would either (a) force a split within the Republican Party on foreign policy grounds, or (b) represent a formal declaration of independence by the Obama administration from the Netanyahu administration when it comes to Middle Eastern policy.

But as is often the case with such disputes, questions about Hagel’s suitability are now being submerged beneath waves of commentary about Obama’s strength and political will, as represented by this summary from Hagel-supporting Robert Wright at The Atlantic.

There’s a lot at stake here–not just whether McCarthyite smears will be allowed to succeed, but whether Obama, in the wake of the Susan Rice episode, will now get a reputation as someone who caves whenever he faces resistance. Some people say Obama will abandon Hagel because he’s too busy dealing with the fiscal cliff negotiations. The truth is that if he doesn’t stand by Hagel he’ll have a weaker hand in the fiscal cliff negotiations, because no one will take his threats seriously. “Defining moment” is an overused term, but this is a defining moment for President Obama.

According to this calculus, Obama must defy Republicans by appointing a Republican Secretary of Defense or next thing you know he’ll be caving to Republicans on tax rates and entitlements.

In all the talk about what Hagel symbolizes, should we maybe spend a bit more time thinking about what kind of Defense Secretary Hagel would be? That’s what David Frum seems to be saying in a communication with Steve Clemons on the subject:

What I find most dismaying about the debate over Senator Hagel is the utter absence from the public discussion of any mention of the single most important issue facing the next secretary of defense: how to preside over what will likely be the steepest military build-down since the 1970s with minimum harm to military capabilities.

There’s nothing in the Hagel record to indicate that he brings any relevant experience or skills to this problem. I find it baffling that President Obama would short-list him for the defense position. I’d feel the same way if Chuck Hagel were B’nai Brith’s man of the year.

Senator Hagel’s supporters offer a case in his favor that would superbly qualify him as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs in the Nixon administration. But that’s not the job we’re talking about.

I’m pretty sure my view of “minimum harm to military capabilities” is way different from David Frum’s (once I was asked by a DLC colleague if I favored NATO expansion, and replied, “I’m still undecided about NATO itself”). But he’s right: we need to be having a big debate over overall U.S. defense policy, and treating Hagel as a once-viscerally-homophobic sorta Republican who’s honked off AIPAC–or beyond that, simply as an instrument for measuring Barack Obama’s testosterone levels–misses some pretty important points.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.