The puzzle of the Chuck Hagel nomination for defense secretary is that you normally choose someone of the other party for your Cabinet to indicate a move to the center, but, as The Washington Post editorial board points out, Hagel's foreign policy views are to the left of Barack Obama's, let alone the GOP's. Indeed, they are at the fringe of the entire Senate.
So what's going on? Message sending. Obama won re-election. He no longer has to trim, to appear more moderate than his true instincts. He has the "flexibility" to be authentically Obama.
Hence the Hagel choice: Under the guise of centrist bipartisanship, it allows the president to leave the constrained first-term Obama behind and follow his natural Hagel-like foreign policy inclinations. On three pressing issues in particular:
Military spending. Current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in August 2011 that the scheduled automatic $600 billion defense cuts would result in "hollowing out the force," and strongly hinted that he might resign rather than enact them. Asked about Panetta's remarks, Hagel called the Pentagon "bloated." Just the man you'd want to carry out a U.S. disarmament that will shrink America to what Obama thinks is its proper size on the world stage, i.e. smaller.
Israel. The issue is not Hagel's alleged hostility but his public pronouncements. His refusal to make moral distinctions, for example. At the height of the second intifada, a relentless campaign of indiscriminate massacre of Israelis, Hagel found innocence abounding: "Both Israelis and Palestinians are trapped in a war not of their making." This pass at evenhandedness is nothing but pernicious blindness. Just last month, Yasser Arafat's widow admitted on Dubai TV what everyone has long known -- that Arafat deliberately launched the intifada after the collapse of the Camp David peace talks in July 2000.
In July 2002, with the terror still raging, Hagel offered further exquisite evenhandedness: "Israel must take steps to show its commitment to peace." Good God. Exactly two years earlier, Israel had proposed an astonishingly generous peace that offered Arafat a Palestinian state -- and half of Jerusalem, a previously unimaginable Israeli concession. Arafat said no, made no counteroffer, walked away and started his terror war. Did no one tell Hagel?
Iran. Hagel doesn't just oppose military action, a problematic option with serious arguments on both sides. He actually opposed any unilateral sanctions. You can't get more out of the mainstream than that. He believes in diplomacy instead, as if talk alone will deter the mullahs. He even voted against designating Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
Most tellingly, he has indicated that he is prepared to contain a nuclear Iran, a position diametrically opposed to Obama's first-term, ostensibly unalterable opposition to containment. What message do you think this sends the mullahs?
And that's the point. Hagel himself doesn't matter. He won't make foreign policy -- Obama will. Hagel's importance is the message his nomination sends about where Obama wants to go.
Iran's official media have already cheered the choice of what they call this "anti-Israel" nominee. The rest of the world can see coming the Pentagon downsizing -- and the inevitable, commensurate decline of U.S. power. Pacific Rim countries will have to rethink reliance on the counterbalance of the U.S. Navy and consider acquiescence to Chinese regional hegemony. Arab countries will understand that the current rapid decline of post-Kissinger U.S. dominance in the region is not cyclical but intended to become permanent.
Hagel is a man of no independent stature. A fringe senator who left no trace behind, Hagel matters only because of what his nomination says about Obama.
However the Senate votes on confirmation, the signal has already been sent.