In the Arena

Kerry, Absolutely. But What About Hagel?

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John Kerry will make a fine Secretary of State. He knows the world, and is easy in it. But I’m worried about the Obama Administration hanging Chuck Hagel–Kerry’s good friend and fellow Vietnam veteran–out to dry.

Back in the 1990s, I found myself very much attracted to and impressed by the Vietnam veterans serving in the U.S. Senate: John Kerry, Bob Kerrey, Chuck Hagel, Max Cleland, Chuck Robb and yes, John McCain. They worked together, across party lines, and made it possible for the U.S. to finally resume diploatic relations with Vietnam, despite opposition from right-wing veterans groups. They put the lie to the phony Rambo notion that there were American prisoners of war still being held by the Vietnamese (the fact that those black POW flags still fly in many public places, including ballparks, is lingering testimony to the cruel ignorance–and often greed–that enabled POW-hunters to fleece grieving families).

These were serious men, good men. They had a real bond. They were a model for how the Senate should work–often disagreeing on matters of substance, but always recognizing that the experience they’d shared in the service of their country was far more important than any political disagreements they might have. I expect the next generation of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will have a similar, intelligent and moderate influence on our politics, too.

But I digress: It’s good that the Obama Administration nominated Kerry, but it came at the cost of a scurrilous campaign against our United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice. That Rice was allowed to be attacked for so long, without being nominated, was cruel and Obama’s ultimate retreat gave succor to his Administration’s enemies which now, sadly, include John McCain.

The same thing is happening with Chuck Hagel. The incredibly high-minded patriots of the neoconservative cult think Hagel would be bad for Israel. Not bad for America, per say; not bad for the civilian leadership of our military; but bad for an ally, Israel, that this Administration has strongly supported, and cooperated with in covert counter-intelligence efforts against Iran, with occasional–worthy–caveats. Hagel doesn’t, for example, want to go to war with Iran. He has spoken out against Israel’s continuing, illegal expansion of settlements. His opponents tend to describe people who take such positions as anti-Israel. Note: not anti-American, but anti-Israel (although I could argue that those who don’t take those positions are lethal to the long-term existence of a Jewish state). And now, in their typically high-minded fashion, the neoconservatives are planning to run negative ads against Hagel, even though he hasn’t even been nominated.

I think the President has a responsibility here–to make a decision fast. It may be that Obama hasn’t made up his mind yet (in which case, the Administration shouldn’t have leaked his name). There are other fine candidates, like Deputy Secretary Ash Carter and defense intellectual Michelle Flournoy. Hagel is a good choice, too; he would the first Vietnam veteran to serve as Secretary of Defense. But the current state of play–Hagel twisting in the wind, his reputation slimed by such flamingly patriotic individuals as Bill Kristol and the saintly bloggers at Commentary–is unfair and not very classy. It is the exact opposite of what a nomination process should look like.