Inquirer Editorial: Hagel chosen for good reason

Chuck Hagel, nominated to be defense secretary, shares the presidents view that military spending must be cut.
Chuck Hagel, nominated to be defense secretary, shares the presidents view that military spending must be cut. (CAROLYN KASTER / Associated Press)
Posted: January 09, 2013

Nothing is ever easy in Washington, so it's no surprise that President Obama's choosing Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary has elicited what is being called an unprecedented response by critics.

There are legitimate concerns about past comments and positions the former senator has taken, but nothing that should lead to anything like U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice's forced withdrawal from consideration to be secretary of state before she could be nominated.

Obama didn't choose Hagel because he and the Nebraska Republican share views on every policy. What they do agree on is the need to rein in Pentagon spending despite lawmakers' trying to protect defense contracts and facilities in their home districts.

The defense budget, which peaked at $690 billion in 2010, has been cut. But few major weapons programs have been canceled since then, and although the Army and Marines have fewer troops, they are still at 2007 levels, when the Iraq war was at its height.

Hagel, who was awarded two Purple Hearts in the Vietnam War, has long argued the Pentagon needs to diet. That perspective is needed as Obama and Congress try to cut military spending by $500 billion over 10 years. With U.S. soldiers pulling out of Afghanistan, defense should be included in efforts to cut the federal deficit.

Opposition to Hagel has cropped up on several fronts. Fellow Republicans hold a grudge because Hagel became an opponent of the Iraq war and he endorsed Obama in the 2008 election. Gay-rights groups have criticized Hagel's support of the Defense of Marriage Act and his 1998 comment that an ambassadorship nominee was "openly, aggressively gay."

Partisan sniping at Hagel for endorsing a man who later nominated him for a cabinet post shouldn't block his appointment. Hagel's apologies for his past insensitivity to gays is being called "too little, too late" by Gregory T. Angelo of the Log Cabin Republicans. But Obama's having dismantled the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy should win some goodwill for his nominee.

Hagel may have a harder time withstanding opposition from Jewish groups concerned that he opposed Iran sanctions in 2007 and has been critical of the clout pro-Israel lobbyists have in Washington. A group called the Emergency Committee for Israel has begun airing ads and has a website (chuckhagel.com) aimed at killing his nomination.

Referring to the organized efforts, Lawrence J. Korb, a Reagan administration assistant defense secretary, told the Washington Post, "I have never seen anything like this." The only thing close, he said, was the 1989 opposition to John Tower's nomination to be defense secretary, but that concerned questions about Tower's character, not policy differences.

Hagel's nomination should be scrutinized, but those doing the scrutiny shouldn't act as if he could set policy that deviates from his boss' positions. Obama has been clear that he supports gay rights, and will defend Israel. Hagel's appointment should not be held up by the suggestion that he could change either policy. That's not why he was nominated.

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