Published Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 6:49 pm
W-H editorial: Hagel should serve, again

Chuck Hagel should be the nation's next secretary of defense.

Nebraskans — and Nebraska's two U.S. senators — should strongly support his nomination.

This fourth-generation Nebraskan has served his country throughout his life — as a decorated combat infantryman in Vietnam; an aide to former Rep. John Y. McCollister, R-Neb.; deputy administrator of the U.S. Veterans Administration; as a two-term senator elected by his fellow Nebraskans; and most recently as co-chairman of President Barack Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board and member of the Defense Policy Board.

Hagel is the president's choice to head the Defense Department, and he deserves confirmation from the Senate.

Yes, Hagel at times has rubbed some fellow Republicans the wrong way, such as his support last fall for the Senate bid of longtime friend, fellow Vietnam vet and Democrat Bob Kerrey. But Sens. Mike Johanns and Deb Fischer and their colleagues need to look at the bigger picture and think about what's best for the state and the nation.

That's confirming Hagel, who would bring many strengths to this post. As the first former enlisted soldier to head the Pentagon, Hagel would offer a unique perspective on when to use military force. He has been a success in business. He knows how Congress works. He is a longtime student of foreign policy.

The Pentagon faces serious challenges. The next defense secretary must engineer the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The Pentagon, like the rest of the government, must deal with spending reductions, including the automatic cuts already approved by Congress. Then there is strategy for dealing with foreign policy threats, including North Korea, Iran and terrorist groups. And there are the issues surrounding U.S. computer security and what current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has warned could be a “cyber Pearl Harbor.”

Regrettably, despite his qualifications, Hagel's opponents have sought to ambush him with old comments, misconceptions and misinformation, particularly in three areas — Israel, Iran and gay rights.

First, Israel. Hagel has been criticized over a reference to “the Jewish lobby” and for his attitude toward Israel. As we said in a previous editorial, Hagel needs to explain clearly what he meant. But any suggestion that he is anti-Jewish or anti-Israel is just wrong. As a senator, Hagel repeatedly supported aid for Israel. In his book, “America: Our Next Chapter,” he wrote: “There will always be a special and historic bond with Israel exemplified by our continued commitment to Israel's defense.” Dr. Aaron David Miller, who has advised six secretaries of state on the Middle East, wrote that Hagel “is a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values.”

Second, critics contend that Hagel is somehow soft toward Iran and its nuclear ambitions. Hagel supports international economic sanctions on Iran. He has not ruled out the use of force but has wisely spoken in favor of keeping all options on the table. As Hagel told the history magazine Vietnam, “I'm not a pacifist. I believe in using force, but only after a very careful decision-making process.” That's the voice of a soldier who still carries shrapnel in his body.

After a decade of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, do most Americans really view the thoughtful weighing of options as being out of the mainstream? No.

Finally, there is scrutiny of comments Hagel made 14 years ago, when he questioned the effectiveness of President Bill Clinton's nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg, James Hormel, and described him as “openly, aggressively gay.” Hagel has apologized, acknowledging that those 1998 comments were “insensitive.”

In the halls of the Pentagon and across the nation, attitudes on this issue have evolved, as has Hagel's. The comments, he said recently, “do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of 'open service' and committed to LGBT military families.”

Former U.S. Ambassador Michael Guest, who is gay, wrote on the website Politico: “I found Hagel to be a man of integrity — honest and direct in his assessments and willing to seek common ground. He was true to his word. And if Hagel says he would fully implement the repeal of 'don't ask, don't tell,' I take him at his word.”

Nine former top U.S. diplomats, including four former ambassadors to Israel who have worked with Hagel, wrote to Foreign Affairs magazine supporting his nomination. Their words are significant: “He has always supported the pillars of American foreign policy — such as: a strong NATO and Atlantic partnership; a commitment to the security of Israel, as a friend and ally; a determination to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and the defense of human rights as a core principle of America's role in the world.”

Chuck Hagel is the president's choice. He is highly qualified. He deserves the chance to serve his country again.

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