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Imagining Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense

How the role of defense secretary is being defined

Adam Chandler
December 20, 2012
Chuck Hagel(Getty)
Chuck Hagel(Getty)

The mere mention of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as a possible nominee for defense secretary has inspired massive wiggings out across the commentariat–first in criticisms of his spotty record on Israel and later (and slightly hysterically) about his alleged anti-Semitism. Others yet have written in defense of him as a veteran who served admirably in battle and as a public servant who has often broken with party orthodoxy.

As the response to the issue rumor of the nomination grows, the various questions about Hagel–here’s a smart, respectful set by David Ignatius–seems to want to define the way we look at the position of defense secretary. For the sake of argument, here’s one more.

Let’s imagine some of the potentially objectionable things that Hagel could do with regard to Israel as defense secretary in an administration that has proven itself to be both pretty pro-Israel in words and deeds and very aggressive in forming an international coalition to isolate and sanction Iran. (For those who need reminding here, it’s the president sets the policy.)

A short list:

1. Criticize or seek to hinder Israel’s arms deals with other countries.
2. Call Israel an ungrateful ally and even say that the United States benefits nothing from the relationship.
3. Publicly state his opposition to an Israeli attack on Iran.
4. Criticize Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
5. Sell weapons to the Arab allies of the United States including Saudi Arabia.
6. Blame Israel for its own international isolation.
7. Oppose establishing red lines on Iran’s nuclear program.
8. Urge Israel to return to peace negotiations, giving it the appearance of being the intransigent party.

For many, myself included, this would be a pretty troubling order (with a light touch of some perhaps needed tough love). This list also represents the actions and statements undertaken or said by the last two Secretaries of Defense, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta. Despite these deeds, if either one of them were to stand in the running to be defense secretary again, I can’t say I’d object. After all, I think they both did a honorable job in executing their duties and in maintaining a cooperative security relationship between Israel and the United States. I also think both men also excelled at the task that matters most: keeping Americans safe.

I’m not saying Hagel is the right pick–it’s becoming pretty clear that he’s not–but I’m not sure that an American president should view a nominee for defense secretary with Israel as the absolute highest priority. The tenor of some of the commentary about Hagel seems to imply that President Obama should. That’s not a good thing.

Adam Chandler was previously a staff writer at Tablet. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Atlantic, Slate, Esquire, New York, and elsewhere. He tweets @allmychandler.