The Hagel Wars

When President Barack Obama began floating the name of Republican Chuck Hagel, the former U.S. senator from Nebraska, to replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense, the Washington punditocracy scratched its collective head, asking why would Obama pick a fight with Republicans over SecDef, when he had more important fights looming over the sequester and the debt ceiling?

But, really, isn’t that just the point of the Hagel nomination?

In nominating the iconoclastic Republican, loathed as he is by the Republican right and the Iraq-warmongers known as neocons, Obama guaranteed an unseemly drama that will unfold before the American people, just as machinations get underway on the nation’s fiscal future.

Republicans will be seen attacking one of their own, one whose name was put forward by the president, bless his soul, as a gesture of bipartisanship. And the beauty of it is that Hagel is a war hero, wounded in Viet Nam, who still has shrapnel in his chest from an attack that earned him one of his two purple hearts.

The Hagel wars increased in intensity today on the Sunday morning talk shows, where former Secretary of State Colin Powell issued a spirited defense of the Nebraskan on NBC’s Meet the Press, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., himself a former prisoner of war, took to the airwaves of CBS, to argue against his former Senate colleague on Face the Nation.

Then Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., popped up on ABC’s This Week to intone darkly about Hagel’s temperament. From a recap by Brian Knowlton at the New York Times Web site:

Mr. Corker, who is not on the Armed Services Committee and said that he did not know Mr. Hagel well, offered little elaboration. But he said that there were “numbers of staffers who are coming forth now just talking about the way he has dealt with them.” He was speaking on the ABC News program “This Week.”

Mr. Corker’s seemed to suggest that he considered Mr. Hagel – who has a reputation for speaking his mind – overbearing or erratic.

Hagel has at times put his ignorance on display, as when he described proposals for allowing LGB people to serve openly in the armed forces as “a social experiment,” or referred to pro-Israel lobbying groups as “the Jewish lobby.”

These have given opponents fodder for opposition, although most LGBT leaders forgave Hagel after he apologized for his “social experiment” remarks, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC — perhaps the largest pro-Israel lobbying group — has declined to attack Hagel on the grounds of those remarks.

Hagel’s most vociferous detractors are the architects of the Iraq war waged under President George W. Bush. Although Hagel voted to authorize the president to invade Iraq, the former senator soon became a critic of the war, using his own wartime experience as a source of moral authority on such matters. From today’s NYT article by Jim Rutenberg:

In the bitter debate that led up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said that some of his fellow Republicans, in their zest for war, lacked the perspective of veterans like him, who have “sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off.”

As the Hagel drama commences, I wonder just how much Obama cares whether, ultimately, Hagel makes it through the nomination process. The optics of the battle are enough to do the job for which the Hagel nomination may have been intended.