The conventional wisdom is that President Obama dodged a politically perilous “bullet” when he declined to nominate Susan Rice as the next secretary of state. Had he done so, the president would have provided his critics a high-profile platform for exposing and critiquing his administration’s conduct with respect to Benghazigate and the larger, dangerous practice of “engaging” Islamists, of which it was a particularly dismal example.
Yet Mr. Obama reportedly is intent on creating what may prove to be a similar “teachable moment” by nominating former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to replace Leon E. Panetta as secretary of defense. Mr. Hagel has been an outspoken champion of controversial and even radical policies firmly embraced by Mr. Obama during his first administration. Worse yet, they are likely to be priorities for his second term now that the president has, as he put it in his overheard conversation with Russia’s Dmitri Medvedev last March, “more flexibility.”
In the event Mr. Obama taps the former Nebraska senator, he will be inviting the sort of national debate that has long been needed — but generally missing — about his administration’s positions in several areas vital to U.S. security. As there is no evident daylight between Mr. Hagel’s views and those of this president, the opportunity must be seized to expose both. Consider several topics that cry out for such high-profile, critical examination:
Mr. Hagel would be a Pentagon chief who favors U.S. disarmament. As Adam Kredo of the Washington Free Beacon has reported, Mr. Hagel has said the following: “The Defense Department, I think, in many ways has been bloated. So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.” Do Republican senators want a former colleague to give political cover to Mr. Obama’s insistence that the United States use reductions in defense spending as a source of half the revenue given up pursuant to the Budget Control Act of 2011 — even though the Pentagon receives only 20 percent of federal expenditures? Do they want to be implicated in the inevitable, attendant dismantling of the sort of freedom-protecting presence the American military has had around the globe since the end of World War II, its ability to project power and its vital modernization programs?
While Mr. Hagel has correctly observed that “defense is not a jobs program,” he — like Mr. Obama — seems indifferent to a harsh reality: Such draconian cuts in defense expenditures will have an adverse impact on employment. In fact, an estimated 1 million jobs in the defense sector will be lost shortly as a result of the now-imminent so-called sequestration round of budget reductions. Do Republican senators share this indifference?
Mr. Hagel has been defeatist about Iraq and Afghanistan. He seems much given to what the late Jeane Kirkpatrick called the “blame America first” syndrome with comments like: “Our policies are a source of significant friction not only in the region, but in the wider international community. Our purpose and power are questioned.” A Hagel nomination would be a perfect opportunity to repudiate such sentiments and disassociate Republicans from them.
Of particular concern is Mr. Hagel’s enthusiasm for U.S. disarmament in the nuclear arena. His advocacy of a “world without nuclear weapons” affords a vehicle for challenging the president’s like-minded efforts to bring about the only thing that is remotely achievable if unimaginably irresponsible: a world without U.S. nuclear weapons. As Mr. Obama is determined not to upgrade our arsenal or to test realistically its aging weapons or to maintain the strategic “triad” at present levels — despite growing nuclear threats from North Korea, Iran, China and Russia — every effort must be made to challenge and counteract such recklessness. Again, a Hagel nomination is a good and very visible place to start.
Speaking of Iran, Mr. Hagel has long been an enthusiastic proponent of direct negotiations with the mullahs, professing, “Engagement is not surrender. It’s not appeasement. [Rather it is] an opportunity to better understand [others].” He has long opposed military action and meaningful economic sanctions. He appears, in short, confident that we can live with a nuclear Iran. Do Senate Republicans agree? If not, are they willing to challenge a president who, despite his rhetoric to the contrary, seems to share that confidence — and oppose a Pentagon nominee who clearly would work to foreclose whatever options remain for precluding such a nightmare?
Last but hardly least, there is the problem of Mr. Hagel’s long-standing hostility toward Israel, a fact recognized even by Iran’s state media. He favors engaging its enemies, including terrorist groups like Hamas. While in the Senate, Mr. Hagel declined to condemn Hezbollah. His anti-Israel and pro-Islamist views have earned him accolades from the Muslim Brotherhood front known as the Council on American Islamic Relations.
To be sure, Mr. Hagel’s enmity toward the Jewish state tracks with that of Mr. Obama. The question is: Do Republican senators and, for that matter, Democratic ones who disagree wish to intensify the undermining of Israel in this administration by elevating someone with these credentials to the job of secretary of defense?
It is deeply regrettable that the last campaign, which was a perfect opportunity for a teachable moment with the American electorate about the dangers the Obama presidency poses to U.S. security interests was not used for that purpose. The next best thing may be a nomination fight over Mr. Obama’s choice as secretary of defense of a man who so aggressively embraces the worst of his policy proclivities.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy (SecureFreedom.org), a columnist for The Washington Times and host of Secure Freedom Radio on WRC-AM (1260).