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The Hagel Choice

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Mark Wilson / Getty Images

President Obama nominates former senator Chuck Hagel to serve as his third Pentagon chief.

I knew John Tower. I covered Senator John Tower, Republican from Texas, for years, first as a Washington correspondent for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, then as President George H.W. Bush’s failed nominee as defense secretary.

Chuck Hagel is no John Tower.

That’s not intended as criticism of either man. But there are a couple of parallels worth noting.

Like Hagel, Tower was proud of his enlisted military service. His came in the Navy during World War II, as seaman first class aboard an amphibious gunboat in the Pacific. Both were graduates of inland colleges after their military service – Tower from Southwestern University, in Georgetown, Texas, and Hagel from the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Their common background, and the grit it suggests, may account for why they rubbed some of their Senate colleagues the wrong way.

(MORE: President Obama Taps Former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel to Run Pentagon)

John G. Tower

Terry Ashe / Time Life Pictures / Getty Images

Tower at the press club, Mar. 1, 1989

A short man with tall ambitions, Tower left the Senate in 1985 — where he had served as chairman of the armed services committee — with a reputation as a drinker and a womanizer. In a remarkable appearance at the National Press Club on Mar. 1, 1989, Tower declared that he was taking an oath “before the American people” to no longer imbibe if he became defense secretary. “I have broken wedding vows,” he conceded. It was painful to witness.

But it was too little, too late. Nine days later, the Senate voted 53-47 against confirming the 24-year Senate veteran. It was the first time in history it had rejected a Cabinet nominee of a newly-elected president. Tower remained bitter until he died in a Georgia plane crash 25 months later.

Hagel, who served as a Republican senator from Nebraska from 1996 to 2008, apparently has none of Tower’s personal baggage. “I am grateful for this opportunity to serve our country again and especially its men and women in uniform and their families,” Hagel said at Monday’s White House announcement of his nomination. “I’m also grateful for an opportunity to help continue to strengthen our country and strengthen our country’s alliances and advance global freedom, decency and humanity as we help build a better world for all mankind.”

The opposition to him comes from folks who don’t like his views on the proper use of U.S. military force, the degree to which he supports Israel, and a couple of politically tone-deaf comments (“the Jewish lobby” in reference to pro-Israeli interests, and “openly, aggressively gay,” referring to a Clinton ambassadorial nominee). “On Iran, on direct face-to-face negotiations with terrorist organizations like Hamas, and questioning our commitment to Israel, our principal ally in the Middle East,” Senator John Cornyn, R-Texas, told NBC, “Chuck Hagel is clearly outside of the mainstream and even contradicts this Administration’s own stated policies in many respects.”

(MORE: The Real Challenges for the New Secretary of Defense)

For lack of a better phrase – there may not be one, in fact – pro-Israeli neo-conservatives are alarmed that, as defense secretary, Hagel wouldn’t be hawkish enough to scare Iran into giving up what Tehran (but no one else) maintains is its peaceful nuclear-development program.

It’s a peculiar strike against him, given that both the outgoing defense chief, Leon Panetta, and his predecessor, Robert Gates, have been cool to trying to use military force to compel Iran to back down (although they have held it in reserve). So is much of the U.S. military, including Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs. The consensus is that attacking Iran would likely only delay, not halt, Tehran’s ambitions.

These are matters of policy, not personal probity. Policy matters are decided by President Obama, not his defense chief. “This is not about Chuck Hagel, because he is not going to determine policy in the Middle East or with Iran,” former defense secretary William Cohen tells Battleland. “That’s the call of the President.” (Fred Kaplan at Slate argues that the bile over the Hagel nomination comes from partisans upset over Obama’s recent re-election as much as anything else).

Hagel scores a hat trick when it comes to serving as the Pentagon chief: he was wounded as an enlisted man while in Vietnam. That trio of tribulations undoubtedly gives him a sensitivity to the deployment of, and wounds suffered by, U.S. troops, both of which are overwhelmingly borne by the enlisted ranks. “To this day, Chuck bears the scars and the shrapnel from battles he fought in our name,” President Obama said as he formally announced Hagel’s selection. “As I saw during our visits together to Afghanistan and Iraq, in Chuck Hagel, our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength. They see one of their own.”

It is instructive to line up Hagel’s boosters against his bashers, and ponder each sides national-security bona fides. It’s not dispositive, of course, but it is interesting.

The supportive camp includes former defense secretaries Gates and Cohen; current defense secretary Panetta; Colin Powell, President George W. Bush’s secretary of state and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under President George H.W. Bush; Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s national security adviser; Frank Carlucci, President Reagan’s defense secretary; William “Fox” Fallon, former chief of U.S. Central Command; and Brent Scowcroft, retired Air Force lieutenant general and national security adviser to presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush.

Critics include several GOP senators – Dan Coats of Indiana, Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas, and Roger Wicker of Mississippi — House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and outside opponents like Josh Block, who heads the Israel Project, a pro-Israel group, and William Kristol, editor of conservative Weekly Standard magazine.

The consensus, although it is by no means firm, is that Hagel will be confirmed. His breadth of support suggests that, absent some ill-chosen phrases that he will spend much time in the coming days lamenting, he is well within the national-security mainstream.

But it’s not, as was once stated in connection with another close national-security debate, a “slam dunk.” Opponents already have launched an anti-Hagel website (http://www.chuckhagel.com/) urging Americans to “Tell your Senators Chuck Hagel is too extreme to be Secretary of Defense.”

Political attacks have matured over the past quarter-century. They can be designed to distort a thinking record just as easily as a drinking record. Perhaps Tower himself said it best at the press club as his nomination crumbled before his eyes. “Is character assassination a legitimate and acceptable means of the exercise of political power?” he wondered. “If that question is answered in the affirmative, we have ushered in a new and rather ugly phase in American politics.”

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