Hopes were high for newly elected Senator Chuck Hagel in 1997, but they faded fast. It soon became clear that Hagel’s early public persona — defense hawk, ardent internationalist — would evolve. Hagel’s distaste for sanctions of all kinds was an early manifestation of what would ultimately be a take on Iran so soft that the unkind might label his views “pro.” Only a principled few wish to protect the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps from designation as a terrorist entity. Not many view Barack Obama’s minuet with Ayatollah Khamenei as insufficiently ardent.
Then there is the Hagel problem with “the Jews”: It is a rare politician who refuses to sign a letter urging action against rising anti-Semitism in Russia. And a tone-deaf one who decries the “intimidation” of the “Jewish lobby” in Washington. But perhaps these are Hagel’s principles. Are they Obama’s?
And what of the question of America at war? It didn’t take long for Hagel, who had supported the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, to turn on those fights. He opposed both Bush’s surge in Iraq and Obama’s in Afghanistan. He opposed Obama’s military action in Libya and the prospect of any action in Syria. In these positions he is far from alone; he has many compatriots on the antiwar left and the libertarian right. Perhaps these are Hagel’s principles. But are they also Obama’s?
But the key is the Pentagon. Here’s how the incumbent describes the prospect of further cuts to a Pentagon that has already sustained close to half a trillion in cuts: “[I]f the sequester takes place, it would be disastrous for our national defense.” Chuck Hagel? His view is that the Department of Defense is “bloated.” Nor was this a random denunciation of a large and often wasteful government department; the question Hagel answered was precisely on the sequestration of the last $500 billion of the $1 trillion in cuts planned for DoD. Perhaps those are Hagel’s views. But are they Obama’s?
It is certainly possible that Chuck Hagel and Barack Obama enjoy a mind meld on the questions of Afghanistan, Israel, Iran and defense spending. After all, there were many who suspected that Obama Mark II — the Iran-hatin’, Israel-lovin’, war-winnin’ re-election version — was far from the reality. But does he meld with Hagel on social policy?
Chuck Hagel’s record on social policy is gold-plated conservatism. Does he like guns? What doesn’t he like? The man received a stellar A rating from the National Rifle Association. He opposed background checks at gun shows and an assault weapons ban. But if Chuck Hagel loves guns, there’s one thing he hates: abortion. Zero from the pro-choice lobby NARAL. ZERO. Hagel even opposed servicewomen being allowed to pay for their own abortions. And he’s not too hot on homosexuals either. Perhaps these are Hagel’s views; not a chance they’re Obama’s.
Hagel’s record has been scrubbed and scrubbed again. In the coming weeks, it’s likely senators will demand information about any consulting clients, speakers’ fees, foreign travel and work with foreign governments, and we will know even more about the man Barack Obama would have as his secretary of defense. What we won’t know is why Obama chose him, or why he chose to expend precious political capital on an ugly Senate fight when there are so many other battles looming.
The two do not agree on guns, gays or abortion. Do the president and Hagel agree on Iran, the Jews, Israel and the defense budget? We can only conclude that they do. Otherwise, Obama would have no reason to pass over so many qualified Democrats to pick this controversial man.
Danielle Pletka is the vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.