Borking Hagel

W. James Antle III Managing Editor
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Robert Bork died recently, but the tactics that kept him off the Supreme Court live on. Some even relish the precedent.

“If Republicans had nervy firebrands like the late Sen. Ted Kennedy,” writes  Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin, “someone would rise up to declare, ‘Chuck Hagel’s America is a land in which gays would be forced back in the closet and Jews would be accused of dual loyalty. Chuck Hagel’s world is one in which devastating defense cuts become a goal, not a problem; we enter direct talks with the terrorist organization Hamas; and sanctions on Iran wither.'”

Why Republicans would want someone like Ted Kennedy, or to heap praise on his tendency to launch malicious and inaccurate attacks on people he disagreed with, is beyond me. But it is clear that Hagel’s nomination for secretary of defense will be met with an attempted borking.

To hear some of Hagel’s critics tell it, you would think he was the only Republican senator who raised any objections when Bill Clinton nominated an openly gay man to become ambassador to Luxembourg in the 1990s. In fact, Oklahoma Republican Sen. James Inhofe at one point threatened to put a hold on all of Clinton’s pending nominations unless James Hormel was withdrawn. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and such nervy Republican firebrands as Jesse Helms and John Ashcroft tried to block Hormel.

Did any national security hawks try to block Ashcroft’s nomination for attorney general on these grounds? If they did, I must have missed it.

Hagel awkwardly backed up his Senate Republican colleagues in an interview with an Omaha newspaper, calling Hormel “aggressively openly gay.” At the time, the Hormel nomination had a lot of Republicans tongue-tied.

Re-read this Weekly Standard article from that time period and you’ll see the campaigns of George W. Bush and John McCain not going the full Hagel, but not exactly riding to Hormel’s defense either.

Hagel’s comments came two years removed from House Democrats approving the Defense of Marriage Act 188 to 65 and Senate Democrats voting for it 32 to 14. Clinton signed it into law. Gallup found that barely 27 percent of the American people supported gay marriage at the time.

Clinton himself passed Hormel over for a post in Fiji because of both local and Republican opposition that stemmed partly from Hormel’s sexual orientation. Such context may not be important to ideologues, but it should be important to people who are trying to be fair.

Several of the Republicans raising questions about Hagel voted against repealing “don’t ask, don’t tell” just two years ago. Does anyone want to bet what John Hagee’s views are on these issues? Who are we trying to kid here?

Hagel’s voting record on foreign policy and defense issues is also much less radical than advertised. He regularly voted for aid to Israel, opposed a bill that would cap that aid, supported George W. Bush’s military spending increases, favored the initial invasion of Iraq, backed the Kosovo war, and voted for several bills imposing sanctions on Iran.

Much of the case against Hagel revolves around him turning against the Iraq war at the same time most of America did (Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell admitted in 2007, “Many of the predictions Chuck Hagel made about the war came true”), preferring multilateral sanctions to unilateral ones, signing some letters denouncing anti-Semitism (including a letter to the United Nations denouncing the anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad) while not signing others, and mentioning Pentagon “bloat” in an answer to a reporter’s question that appears to stop short of a full endorsement of the defense sequester.

Some of the sanctions regimes Hagel has criticized have plainly not worked but make their supporters feel good about themselves. Despite the U.S. embargo against Cuba, for example, the Castros have now outlasted the Soviet Union by more than two decades.

Finally, Hagel has called for diplomacy in some situations where his critics prefer sanctions or military force. But there is no record of Hagel calling for talks with Hamas, for instance, before the Bush administration insisted the group participate in the Palestinian Authority elections. One of Hagel’s leading critics was optimistic about the Arab spring, which has tended to empower anti-Israel political actors.

Many of Hagel’s opponents are bothered precisely because he is not that far out of the mainstream. They would rather debate the merits of the Iraq war with Code Pink or argue about a possible military strike against Iran with those who would also second-guess World War II. Chuck Hagel isn’t Barbara Lee, Dennis Kucinich, or even Ron Paul.

In my opinion, Hagel has been all too willing to fight what President Obama might have called “dumb wars.” But the Iraq surge, while its benefits were oversold, wasn’t “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.” He is also probably wrong about the efficacy of negotiations with the likes of Hamas or Hezbollah.

Yet these issues should be debated without arguing like bad liberals, leveling accusations of bigotry and bad faith based on the flimsiest evidence. Whatever Hagel’s sins, he deserves better treatment than the Democrats gave Judge Bork.

W. James Antle III is the editor of The Daily Caller News Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.