Mathis: Fight over Chuck Hagel is about embarrassing Barack Obama

Chuck Hagel, a Republican and former U.S. senator

Chuck Hagel, a Republican and former U.S. senator from Nebraska, has been nominated by President Barack Obama to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. (March 22, 2007) (Credit: Getty Images)

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The main thing wrong with Hagel is that he’s a Republican.

That’s not disqualifying, understand, but it does mean that two of Obama’s defense secretaries will have hailed from the GOP. (Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration, was the first.)

It’s the kind of thing that signals that Democrats believe Republicans are stronger on America’s national security — and though it’s not true, the symbolism matters.


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So why do Republicans oppose Hagel? Because he has suggested that Israel’s interests don’t 100 percent align with America’s? That’s apparently a dangerous thing to say these days in Washington, D.C., but the truth is that while the countries do have overlapping interests, they’re not completely the same thing.

Because Hagel isn’t gung-ho for dropping bombs on Iran? Good for him.

Because he criticized the “surge” of troops in Iraq that began under George W. Bush, and which some conservatives say helped America win the war there? Good for him again — the Bush administration’s decision to invade that country, and subsequent mismanagement of the war, were disastrous. Hagel was one of the first Republicans to plainly say so.

Because he has secret ties to America’s enemies? No. That’s just some McCarthyite nonsense that the fever swamps of the right have made up in the absence of better reasons to oppose Hagel.

Under Hagel, the Pentagon would probably become a leaner organization — though still, remember, the biggest and most expensive defense establishment on Earth, one less likely to solve problems by invading countries and smarter about balancing its resources to best guarantee America’s national security. That’s going to be the case under any secretary nominated by Obama, because that’s the president’s vision.

So maybe Republicans don’t like Hagel. But it’s the president they’re trying to embarrass. Nothing new there. The GOP is campaigning, not governing, forever and always.

Joel Mathis is a writer in Philadelphia.

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