Even during difficult economic times, most Americans still want our nation to maintain a credible national defense, support the welfare of its troops, and assume a leadership role for America in an increasingly chaotic world including by continuing close cooperation with democratic allies. That is why the President's choice of a new Secretary of Defense is crucial to our nation during trying times. Unfortunately, the widely-rumored frontrunner for this position, former Senator Chuck Hagel, falls short on all three counts.
In his public statements, Hagel, a decorated war veteran with two Purple Hearts from service in Vietnam, has made it clear that "the Pentagon needs to be pared down," including our already diminished nuclear arsenal, and that America should lead not only from behind, but far behind. Current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has declared the severe defense cuts that Congress mandated to take effect January 1 under the sequestration process, "would have a devastating effect not only on our national defense but I think on the rest of the country. It's totally unacceptable, and frankly our political leaders cannot allow it to happen." In a September 2011 interview with the Financial Times, Hagel proclaimed, "The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated ... so I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down."
Given the turmoil in the Middle East and the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, Hagel's views on this critical region are particularly alarming. He recently indicated that the United States has "minimal ability to influence the outcomes" in Egypt or Syria. In fact, he has called for the Arab League, not the United States or NATO, to take the lead in any military intervention in Syria.
Regarding American ties to the region, he has stated that "we are seen by many in the Middle East as an obstacle to peace, an aggressor, an occupant." Such statements, along with his dismal record in support of related Senate initiatives, have earned him plaudits and awards from such groups as the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) and an unindicted terrorism co-conspirator, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Unlike many other top national security appointees, Hagel has been able to compile a long public record during his two terms in the U.S. Senate on key national security issues and the United States relationship with Israel. His ability to see the big picture is suspect, to say the least.
In January 2007, Senator Hagel denounced the proposed Iraq War surge as, "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out. I will resist it." All Americans, regardless of their stance on the war, can be grateful he was unsuccessful in his threat.
Also worrisome are Hagel's opposition to any exercise of a military option to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Taking the military option off the table renders impotent all other measures short of war. What this mindset would mean for U.S. national security in a second Obama administration is cause for deep concern.
In August 2006, Hagel was one of only 12 Senators who refused to formally call upon the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Never mind the fact that the Lebanese Shiite terror group had long been considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. government - a policy upheld by both Democratic and Republican presidents.
Whether he allowed his passions to get the better of him or his comments were born of sheer ignorance (neither an attractive quality in a Secretary of Defense), Senator Hagel appeared unaware that Hezbollah has the blood of hundreds of Americans on its hands. The list of those attacks includes the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing that claimed the lives of 241 U.S. Marines, sailors and soldiers, the 1983 bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut that took the lives of 17 Americans, the 1984 murder of CIA operative William F. Buckley, the 1984 bombing of a restaurant near the U.S. air base at Torrejon, Spain that killed 18 U.S. servicemen, the 1985 murder of U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem, and the 1988 murder of U.S. Marine Col. William Higgins. Furthermore, Hezbollah was strongly implicated in the 1996 Khobar Towers truck bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 American servicemen and the 2008 attack on a U.S. embassy motorcade in Beirut.
Since 2001, at least 21 Hezbollah-linked terrorism cases in the United States have prosecuted by the Justice Department. Surely, by 2007, Senator Hagel was aware that such cases were coming before the courts. His thoughtless positions on Hezbollah are an insult to anyone who has served or was serving in the U.S. armed forces and the diplomatic corps.
Continuing to fail to see the big picture, Senator Hagel voted against the Iran Counter-Proliferation Act of 2007, which in addition to imposing means to halt Iran's proliferation of WMD to other bad actors, sought to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization. Since 2006, the State Department has indicated that the IRGC provides training, funding, and weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq that target American troops. The IRGC also provides the Taliban in Afghanistan with weapons and training. In both war zones, the IRGC brought in sophisticated explosively formed penetrator IEDs and trained Shiite militias and the Taliban in their use against U.S. and NATO forces to deadly effect.
Shortsightedness (another unattractive attribute) is clearly another Hagel characteristic. In June 2004, he refused to sign a letter urging President Bush to highlight Iran's nuclear program at the G-8 summit. In December 2005, he was one of only 27 senators who would not sign a letter to President Bush to pressure the Palestinian Authority to ban terrorist groups from participating in Palestinian legislative elections. Those elections proved to be a boon to Hamas, which, since 1997, has been recognized as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government.
Unfortunately for both countries, Hagel has demonstrated an unusual lack of sympathy (to say the least) for a reliable ally, Israel. During his 12 years in the Senate, he demonstrated indifference or opposition to initiatives with regard to confronting Iran and terrorism, while showing much less support for Israel than the overwhelming majority of his colleagues. What this portends for continued close strategic cooperation between the United States and Israel is troubling.
In a narrower sense, Hagel's assertion that "the political reality is that... the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," is extremely troubling on several levels. But obviously, Hagel was not "intimidated" or, for example, he would not have one-sidedly written that, "Palestinian reformers cannot promote a democratic agenda for change while both the Israeli military occupation and settlement activity continue. Israel must take steps to show its commitment to peace."
An indication of Hagel's early less-than-warm feelings toward Israel came in the late 1980s when, as the president of the USO, he sought to defund the popular USO facility in the Israeli port city of Haifa - a favored destination for the sailors of the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet. Fortunately, private philanthropy came to the rescue to the delight of our sailors.
What Americans have then is a disturbing picture of what could be expected from Hagel as Secretary of Defense. Given the challenges we face around the globe, it makes no sense to rely on someone who basically favors retrenchment and retreat, who would be in a position to harm a close relationship beneficial to both Israel and our own country, and who betrays a stunning insensitivity and narrow-mindedness concerning the terrorist war on the United States and Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.
There are individuals far more qualified to run the Department of Defense than Chuck Hagel. President Obama would do well to call upon one of them.