In a sign of his full-on awareness of the wave of criticism already trailing former Senator Chuck Hagel, President Obama nominated his next Secretary of Defense with a simple defense Monday afternoon: Hagel's top qualification? He's a Vietnam vet. Hagel would be the first former enlisted man to serve as defense secretary, so "Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction," Obama said. "In Chuck Hagel our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength — they see him as one of their own."
If Obama seems to think Hagel's service inoculates him from some Republican criticism, history would suggest otherwise. An anonymous White House official told Politico's Mike Allen, "And as Max Cleland said: At the end of the day, are senators really going to look a veteran-hero — who still has two Purple Hearts, and shrapnel in his chest — in the eye and say they aren't going to support him?" But of course, former Sen. Max Cleland's own history shows senators have no problem attacking Vietnam veterans. Cleland, a triple amputee Vietnam veteran, lost his seat in 2002, after his opponent aired an ad showing Cleland's face with Osama bin Laden's and accusing him of not having "the courage to lead."
Even as the president cast the nominations of Hagel and his slightly less controversial new CIA director nominee John Brennan as a simple remaking of military and spy operations in the image of their agencies, the men did speak for themselves. After the former Nebraska senator was formally nominated Monday, the Lincoln Journal Star posted an interview in which Hagel responded to his critics. Now he has "an opportunity to set the record straight," Hagel said, after "hanging out there in no-man's land unable to respond to charges, falsehoods and distortions." Hagel addressed criticism that he opposed signing a letter urging the E.U. to label Hezbollah a terror group and that he opposed sanctions on Iran. "I didn't sign on to certain resolutions and letters because they were counter-productive and didn't solve a problem," Hagel said. "I have not supported unilateral sanctions because when it is us alone they don't work and they just isolate the United States."
Some writers have suggested that the Republican opposition to Hagel is more about the Iraq war than Israel. Hagel sharply criticized his own party as the war got worse. At The Daily Beast, Peter Beinart argued, "At the heart of the opposition to Hagel is the fear that he will do what Republicans have thus far largely prevented: bring America’s experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan into the Iran debate." Andrew Sullivan says Hagel's "core qualification" is that "Unlike so many of the lemmings and partisans of Washington DC, Hagel actually called out the catastrophe of the Iraq War as it happened." But both Obama — and, in a press conference following the official nomination, press secretary Jay Carney — only hinted at the Iraq angle, saying Hagel fought and bled for his country in Vietnam. Obama insisted that Hagel knows well the sacrifices troops make when we go to war, and that war is "something we only do when it's absolutely necessary." It's the Iraq-era chickenhawk argument — that those who pushed us into war opted not to serve — made a little more politely.
Given the difficulty in Senate scheduling, confirmation hearings may not begin for several weeks, with Secretary of State nominee John Kerry expected to be first on the list.