WASHINGTON — When I served in the U.S. Senate as a foreign policy aide, the Iraq war dominated the political debate and the nation’s attention. Just like the budget fights of today, there was practically no other policy issue that wasn’t viewed through the prism of where one stood on Iraq.
During those dark days, the debate tended to fall along partisan lines, with Republicans backing President Bush’s surge policy and with Democrats, especially after the 2006-midterm elections when they picked up congressional majorities largely because of Iraq, opposed.
That was, until Chuck Hagel entered the scene.
Hagel is a conservative Republican from the heart of the country. He has an 84 percent lifetime score from the American Conservative Union. He is an American patriot. He served with distinction in Vietnam as an enlisted man, earning two purple hearts for his valor. He still carries shrapnel in his chest from wounds suffered in that war.
And Chuck Hagel, in a memorable public stand, turned against the war in Iraq.
What he did, by opposing the surge in Iraq, was to break open the national conversation about what our goals there were, and how we were going to achieve them. He enabled a conversation to take place that had been partisan, and converted into a debate about policy. And as Chuck Hagel turned against the war, so did the majority of Americans, who ultimately voted the anti-war candidate, Barack Obama, into the White House.
Hagel’s nomination for secretary of defense, however, has revived the political fights of recent years. The opponents to Hagel have seized on policy views and remarks that he’s made, but have largely used the figure of Hagel to attack President Obama’s national security policy instead.
What Hagel actually represents is a mainstream policy stance on national security issues for which a secretary of defense is responsible. These issues range from the use of diplomacy to resolve our concerns about Iran’s nuclear program while not ruling out force, to the defense budget, where he recognizes that defense spending is going down during these tough fiscal times, to nuclear weapons policy, where he recognizes that nuclear weapons are costly and that our arsenal is too large for the threats our country faces. He also supports a popular policy on Afghanistan that’s focused on drawing down our troops by 2014.
These are not only Hagel’s policies; they are Obama’s policies too. And they are policies that have been endorsed twice by America’s electorate.
This is why multiple key voices from the pro-Israel and national security communities have lent their credibility to the debate about Hagel by calling for his swift confirmation.
From the pro-Israel community, leading voices such as Thomas Friedman, Peter Beinart and Jeff Goldberg have expressed their support for Hagel. And leading Jewish senators such as Chuck Schumer, Barbara Boxer and Carl Levin support as well. Goldberg, who is renowned for his access to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even argued that Hagel would be good for Israel because he is willing to speak openly to Israel about its interests and our role in helping Israel achieve peace and security, saying that “what we need are American officials who will speak with disconcerting bluntness to Israel about the choices it is making.”
And Schumer endorsed Hagel as well after meeting with him, calling on his Senate colleagues to support him, arguing that Hagel is committed to Israeli security. Schumer specifically cited how “Hagel pledged to work toward the on-time delivery of the F-35 joint strike fighters to Israel, continue the cooperation between Israel and the U.S. on Iron Dome, and recommend to the president that we refuse to join in any NATO exercises if Turkey should continue to insist on excluding Israel from them. Senator Hagel believes Israel must maintain its Qualitative Military Edge.”
National security leaders agree. A recent poll of 61 national security insiders overwhelmingly expressed support for Hagel’s confirmation — with 82 percent supporting. And 50 former leading ambassadors, including half a dozen who served in Israel, such as Dan Kurtzer and Tom Pickering, called for his swift confirmation, arguing that “Time and again, [Hagel] has chosen to take the path of standing up for our nation, rather than the path of political expediency. He has always supported the pillars of American foreign policy: a strong military; a robust Atlantic partnership; a commitment to the security of Israel, as a friend and ally; a determination to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and the defense of human rights as a core principle of America’s role in the world.”
Chuck Hagel is likely to receive swift confirmation from the Senate. There will be tough questions, but most observers expect the Senate to approve his nomination — perhaps by a large margin. As evidenced by the broad support he has received, this will be good for both our country’s and Israel’s security.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at email@example.com or Twitter.com/JoelMartinRubin. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)