The Liberal Case against Chuck Hagel

Much metaphorical ink has been spilt writing about President Barack Obama’s nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. In this climate, I was initially a bit skeptical of adding my voice to what is increasingly becoming a tired cacophony. However, a vast majority of what has been written has been either in firm support or in firm opposition of Hagel’s nomination. While those in favor have offered well-developed arguments (a prominent example), skeptics have presented mostly incoherent attacks centered either on Hagel’s supposedly dovish views, particular in regards to Iran, or Hagel’s less-than-complete commitment to Israel. Opposition from the left, usually reduced to Hagel’s comments about openly gay former ambassador James Hormel, has become lost in the oft-hyperbolic opposition from the right.  This is unfortunate. As Hagel attempts to reassure Senators, especially Democratic ones, before and during the confirmation hearings, I suggest that there remain some key issues surrounding Hagel of which foreign policy-minded liberals should be aware.

Barack Obama and the nominee for Secretary of Defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel

Undeniably, there are obvious reasons to support Chuck Hagel’s nomination for Secretary of Defense. His clear stance on Israel and the two-state solution marks a refreshing shift in the establishment foreign policy discourse about Israel-Palestine. Moreover, his steadfast opposition to hasty military action against Iran suggests that the Pentagon might offer an important veto should relations break down to the point that the White House would consider a strike. However, these are two big picture issues over which Hagel is likely to have little influence if Congress and the President are already determined to pursue a certain policy. Rather, Hagel as Secretary of Defense under President Barack Obama, like Robert Gates and Leon Panetta before him, is much more likely to affect relatively minor policy issues and day-to-day Pentagon operations. Since these decisions will probably include key civil rights, civil liberties, humanitarian, and legal (domestic and international) issues on which Hagel has a less-than-stellar record, progressives should, at the very least, be wary of Hagel’s nomination. While I don’t think outright opposition is appropriate, I also do not think full-fledged liberal support is warranted without addressing these key concerns first.

The Role of the Secretary of the Defense

Even supporters of Hagel tend to admit that the core of Obama’s foreign policy will be unaffected by Hagel’s nomination. As Stephen Walt put it,

I don’t think Hagel’s appointment implies any shift in policy direction. It’s been clear for quite some time what the general thrust of Obama’s national security policy is going to be: trimming defense, pivoting to Asia, rejecting preventive war with Iran, and striving to rebuild at home. To the extent that he used the sword overseas, it was through limited, surgical means like special forces and drones and not big U.S. deployments.

This will not be an administration of disengagement. So what will change? What policy decisions could Chuck Hagel affect as Secretary of Defense? Some have argued that Hagel could change discourse in Washington on the use of force in American security policy. I don’t disagree with this assessment. However, I wonder whether Hagel’s views might not also play an important role on other, more “minor” issues. In this regard, I am skeptical of the Hagel nomination for four reasons.

1.) Anti-Progressive Views on Key Social Issues

As Rachel Maddow emphasized recently, Leon Panetta embraced the responsibility of making the military a friendlier place for women and LGBT service members. Will Chuck Hagel do the same? His conservative views on the LGBT community have received extensive coverage so I won’t belabor this point. However, it is worth pointing out that it is one thing for a Secretary to Defense to lock in the status quo, of which I am certain Hagel is capable, and it is quite another to combat continuing problems in the military. LBGT rights notwithstanding, one of the most important internal issues facing the US military are the thousands of cases of sexual assault reported (and not reported) each year.  Panetta ensured that military women had access to abortion under the health care plans partly for this reason. Hagel has made it clear, through word and deed, that he is pro-life with only the life of the mother as an exception. He has also explicitly come out against abortion in the case of rape or incest because pregnancy in those cases is “rare.” This is, more or less, the same logic espoused by Senatorial candidates Richard Mourdock and Todd Akin. It is unclear to me why Hagel should be held to a different—lower—standard than these men. As Panetta’s actions over the past couple of years have demonstrated, Secretary of Defense is a job where such opinions matter. While the gains made in recent years in promoting women’s rights and LGBT rights in the military have been important, the fight is far from over.

2.) Shaky Record on Civil Liberties  

Hagel has an at best mixed record on civil liberties. It compares unfavorably to that of Democratic foreign policy heavyweights in the Senate from the same period such as Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry. The highlights are as follows. After initial support in 2001, Hagel expressed some doubts about the Patriot Act before finally voting to re-authorize it in 2006. He also voted to expand the surveillance capabilities of the executive without a warrant domestically and with a warrant abroad (Terrorist Surveillance Act of 2006, Protect America Act of 2007). He also voted in favor of the Military Commissions Act, which authorized military tribunals for “enemy combatants” and against key amendments to the bill protecting habeas corpus and requiring additional CIA oversight (amendments co-sponsored by Senate Democrats including Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton). To his credit, Hagel voted in favor of restoring habeas corpus rights to American citizens detained at Guantanamo, though such rights did not extend to foreign nationals.

3.) Unclear Stance on the Predator Drone Program

It seems that, these days, it may be too much to expect any Secretary of Defense to promote a scaling back of the predator drone program. However, assuming their continued use moving forward, we should think carefully about several issues: the legality of these strikes; the precedent of their use for future administrations and other states; an end to the “double-tap” practice that affects first responders; and how to use them more strategically so as to lower the risk of reprisals. Will Hagel deal with these concerns? Unclear. Hagel supported the drone program during his time in the Senate and has referred to the drone program as a “very important” part of US military operations moving forward. However, his record, perhaps by design, is sparse and, therefore, unclear on some of the less superficial components of the program.

I should note that on both civil liberties and the predator drone program, it is possible that the President’s nominee for CIA Director, John Brennan, may have an even more troubling record. However, given Brennan’s past employment, he is likely to receive a much more serious inquiry into these matters than Hagel is.

4.) Against Humanitarian Intervention

In contrast to the predator drone program, Hagel’s position on humanitarian intervention is quite clear. On the use of force, Hagel is an old-fashioned realist in the Brent Scowcroft/Jim Baker-mold. And indeed, Hagel’s aversion to humanitarian intervention reminds one of the George H.W. Bush administration’s “we don’t have a dog in this fight” logic that allowed the war in Bosnia to drag on until 1995. Like Robert Gates before him, Hagel opposed intervention in Libya, one of the major foreign policy successes of Obama’s first term with support from Democrats, Republicans, liberals, and realists alike. While Gates’s reservations ultimately mattered little on a national security team with noted liberal interventionists like Hillary Clinton, Samantha Power, and (until she left) Anne-Marie Slaughter, the balance of power has now shifted firmly against intervention. If Hagel is confirmed as Secretary of Defense, American policy toward Syria becomes tragically clear. It may be that any such intervention has become unlikely independently of Hagel. Nonetheless, Hagel’s firm commitment to a narrow interpretation of the national interest presumably takes humanitarian intervention off the table entirely for the second term of Obama’s administration.

Skepticism, not Opposition

In a recent New Yorker piece, John Cassidy wondered why the President could not find any Democrats fit for Secretary of Defense. I’m inclined to agree with this assessment. Surely we could find a progressive at Defense to help change the foreign policy discourse without compromising key civil rights gains in the military? Surely we could find a Secretary opposed to unnecessary military involvement abroad yet willing to engage American forces for humanitarian reasons? If we are to believe the President’s nomination strategy, apparently not. However, if this is the case, then foreign policy-minded liberals everywhere should make sure the conservative nominee at hand—Chuck Hagel—addresses the aforementioned concerns about the key military issues of our day. The point is not to categorically oppose the nomination of a man who appears reasonably qualified to run the Pentagon. Rather, the point is to have an intelligent conversation about the future of American national security policy. Hopefully the Senate hearings focus on something outside of what Hagel may or may not think about Israel and Iran.

For more of his thoughts on the Hagel nomination, follow William on Twitter.

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2 thoughts on “The Liberal Case against Chuck Hagel

  1. There’s so many words about Hagel’s opinions (which could impact what he does in the office), but not one word of whether Hagel is competent enough to be in this position in the first place. You did mention “capability”, but only in terms of whether Hagel is capable to lock in the status quo of “key social issues” in the military, not, you know, whether he’s capable to manage US defense and wars.

    If Hagel is competent enough to be in this position, then you can start reviewing his opinions and determining if they match your preferred policy outcomes. But if Hagel is incompetent, then his appointment must be cancelled immediately lest national security is threatened. It doesn’t matter what he personally believes…you don’t want an incompetent person in office. The fact that you didn’t ask this question points to two possibilities: (a) Hagel’s competence in this position is seriously in question, and this is a good sign on Obama’s part, (b) this is a political/symbolic appointment where competence is not seriously needed to run this office, and THAT is a bad sign.

    • Typo in the above post. This sentence: “Hagel’s competence in this position is seriously in question, and this is a good sign on Obama’s part” should actually read “Hagel’s competence in this position is taken for granted, and this is a good sign on Obama’s part”.

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