Critics are pounding President Barack Obama’s choice for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, as soft on Iran, anti-military and even anti-Semitic. This is a grotesque caricature of a man who would make a terrific defense secretary.
It’s true that Hagel harbors a healthy skepticism about deploying American troops. That’s because he also harbors shrapnel in his chest from Vietnam and appreciates the human costs when Pentagon officials move pins on maps.
In Vietnam, Hagel rescued his unconscious brother (who served in the same unit) from a troop carrier that had hit a mine. The incident left Hagel with blown eardrums, bad burns and an important takeaway.
“I’m not a pacifist. I believe in using force, but only after a very careful decision-making process,” Hagel later told Vietnam magazine. “The night Tom and I were medevaced out of that village in April 1968, I told myself: If I ever get out of this and I’m ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.”
How refreshing to imagine decisions about war made by brave doves rather than by chicken hawks.
“Too often in Washington, the issue of intervention becomes an abstraction, a policy debate,” noted Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior State Department official. “I like the idea that somebody at the table sees it in terms of people.”
Brent Scowcroft, the former national security adviser and doyen of serious Republican thinkers on foreign policy, told me: “I think he would be an outstanding secretary of defense.” Scowcroft noted that top officials are sometimes tempted to turn to military force “as a way of cleaning up problems quickly” without appreciating the complexities, while Hagel would be a counterweight who understands the messiness of combat.
That would be useful because America’s biggest foreign-policy mistake in this new century has been overdeploying troops. Obama’s own biggest blunder was tripling the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. We have, so far, sank $640 billion into Afghanistan and more than $800 billion into Iraq — all told, according to my calculation, more than $12,000 per U.S. household.
Imagine if those sums had been spent on, say, global education: About 1 percent of the total spent on Iraq and Afghanistan, if instead spent annually on schooling around the world, would allow every child worldwide to complete primary school, ending global illiteracy.
The nastiest and most shameful innuendo about Hagel is that he is anti-Semitic. A Wall Street Journal column suggested as much, and Elliott Abrams, a former George W. Bush administration official, asserted that Hagel “appears to be ... an anti-Semite.” I’m standing up for Hagel right now partly because I find this so offensive.
The “evidence” is that Hagel once referred to the term “Jewish lobby” rather than “Israel lobby” and that he has generally been more willing to criticize Israeli policies than have many of America’s feckless politicians.
For starters, “Jewish lobby” is a term that has been widely used: A search of “Jewish lobby” on the website of Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper, has 27 pages of citations. And Haaretz has criticized Israeli policies much more harshly than Hagel.
Leaders of Jewish organizations themselves have used the term “Jewish lobby.” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, used the term a couple weeks ago.
It’s bullying and name-calling to denounce people as anti- Semitic because they won’t embrace the policies of a far-right Israeli government that regularly shoots itself in the foot. In a world in which anti-Semitism actually does persist, this is devaluing the term so that it becomes simply a glib right-wing insult. Maybe that’s why Jewish Voice for Peace, a liberal American Jewish organization, has announced that its supporters have sent 10,000 emails to Obama in support of Hagel’s nomination.
As for Iran, Hagel will need to sound more hawkish in public to mesh with the administration, and it is useful for Iran to worry about a military strike. But I hope that Hagel, in private, continues to be cautious. Obama has been painting himself in a corner so that if a nuclear deal with Tehran isn’t reached, he would have to order bombings sometime in 2013 or 2014. A skeptic at the Pentagon would be a useful addition to that debate.
As a journalist who spends a good deal of time in the field, I am often alarmed that Washington policy-making can become an echo chamber reinforcing the prejudices of whoever is in charge without giving weight to inconvenient complexities on the ground. With his combat experience, Chuck Hagel would offer not an echo but a thoughtful and independent voice.