Column, 664 words

We Don’t Need a Secretary of Militarism

Chuck Hagel proved to be an intelligent, reasonable man with a reputation for honesty in the Senate, and these days that qualifies for sainthood.

Donald Kaul

The chicken hawks are out in force these days, attacking Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama’s choice for Secretary of Defense.

He’s too reluctant to use force, they say. He favors negotiation over sanctions and sanctions over bombs, they say. He doesn’t like Israel enough; he’s an anti-Semite.

Who’s saying these terrible things about a man who, when he served in the Senate, was considered a fairly reliable conservative vote albeit one with a mind of his own?

It’s the usual suspects (plus John McCain, that rare breed: a man who has seen war but is still spoiling for a fight). William Kristol, editor of the right wing clarion The Weekly Standard, is leading the charge. This is the same Kristol, you’ll remember, who discovered Sarah Palin when she was a virtually unknown governor, sitting on her front porch in Alaska, where, as Tina Fey told us, she could see Russia from her house.

He thought she’d make a wonderful president-in-waiting of the United States some day, so he introduced her to his Republican friends, who agreed. Are we supposed to take a guy with judgment like that seriously? Do we care whom he wants for Secretary of Defense?

Or perhaps you’d prefer Elliott Abrams, an architect of the Iran-Contra scandal, who would have spent time in jail without a presidential pardon from George H.W. Bush. He’s the one pressing the anti-Semitism angle and making up stuff to do it. His good buddy in the smear campaign is Sheldon Adelson, the casino mogul who bankrolled Newt Gingrich’s quixotic presidential run.


Secretary of Defense/Flickr

Come on. Let me tell you about Chuck Hagel. He wasn’t my favorite senator — too conservative — but he represented Nebraska, a very conservative state.

He was, however, an intelligent, reasonable man with a reputation for honesty. In the Senate these days, that qualifies for sainthood.

He and his brother served a bloody tour in Vietnam, where they took turns saving each other’s lives. He returned home and eventually realized that war is a terrible answer to any question and should be undertaken reluctantly, as a last resort. That’s the way he thought as a senator (he was an early critic of the Iraq invasion, for example) and that’s the way he promises to think as Pentagon chief.

This drives the right wing crazy. (I sometimes think right-wingers view thoughtfulness as a character flaw.) Conservatives favor Dick Cheney’s rhinoceros-in-a-china-shop approach to foreign affairs.

Not that progressives are happy with the nomination either. Hagel is just way too right-wing for them on a variety of issues. (Progressives tend to think no one who can actually get confirmed by the Senate is worthy of public office.)

Nevertheless, Hagel, whose chief task will be to cut the military down to a more manageable, less expensive size, is an ideal man for the job.

He’s in the grand tradition of American men of war who became champions of peace later in life. It’s a line that stretches back to George Washington and claims politicians as diverse as Dwight Eisenhower, George McGovern, John Kerry, and Colin Powell.

It includes too my favorite Civil War General, William Tecumseh Sherman. While absolutely ruthless in war, he had no love for it. At the end of the war he said:

“I confess, without shame, that I am sick and tired of fighting — its glory is all moonshine; even success the most brilliant is over dead and mangled bodies…tis only those who have never heard a shot, never heard the shriek and groans of the wounded and lacerated…that cry aloud for more blood, more vengeance, more desolation.”

In other words, the Cheneys, Kristols, and Abrams of the world.

I like the idea of having a Secretary of Defense who knows war intimately. I like the idea that there is a voice in our councils saying: “Wait a minute. Let’s think this through. Maybe there’s another way.”

Hagel could be that voice.

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

  • Liberal Iowan

    once again, you make too much sense. Thank you for giving me hope in an insane country.

  • wayne from sheboygan

    Exactly. I can’t think of a better pick. And I’m sure he doesn’t view our military as Bibi Netanyahu’s personal mercenaries. He’s paid his dues. That’s more than I can say for tough-talking five-deferment Dick. “Thoughtfulness as a character flaw”: good one. One of my favorites was your concept of Nixon’s “negative charisma”. You should recycle that one, one of these days. Take care of yourself, OT.

  • Tom Ryan

    Here is Senator Hagel in 1997 explaining his opposition to the nomination of James Hormel to be Ambassador to Luxembourg —

    “They are representing America. They are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay — openly, aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel — to do an effective job.”

    Ok, it was 16 years ago and attitudes have changed. And of course the man’s opinions about gay people may not be the most relevant factor in his ability to be Secretary of Defense. And I do agree with you Mr. Kaul, a man who has seen war and is reluctant to make it a first resort would be a good choice.

    On the other hand, it wasn’t until last month — when he saw a chance for a Cabinet position — that Senator Hagel saw fit to retract his comment about Ambassador Hormel, and that came in the form of the “politician’s apology” — he “regrets” his comments and acknowledges them to be, “insensitive.” Politicians “regret” things they’ve said only when they come back to bite them.

    Suppose that in 1997 Senator Hagel had opposed the nomination of an African American or Hispanic or female nominee using the same kind of language. Would we all accept the 16-years-too-late “apology” that his remarks were “insensitive?”

    I wish the President had stood a little more firmly for Susan Rice.

    • ESGreco

      Clearly, Hagel’s not the most progressive pick Obama could have made for this position. But Rice would have been a poor pick for Secretary of State as well, in part due to an issue that wasn’t widely covered in the major media. She had a financial stake in the Keystone XL pipeline. Because this climate-killing tar sands conduit would cross the U.S.-Canadian border, this was very relevant to the question of whether she would be an appropriate State Department leader. You can read more about this issue in the alternative media, such as this Daily Kos post from late November.

  • jan

    I’m one of the liberals that wasn’t too happy with his nomination but after reading this I’m going to have to reconsider. I may have been wrong. I’m glad you wrote this.

  • Rick Stimson

    We miss you Donald. But then, I miss Gordon Gammack, too. After more than 100 years of being a populist’s voicie, It seems the Register is trying to publish a newspaper in strict accordance to the fairness doctrine at a time when no one else is paying attention to the fairness doctrine. I’m sure it’s tough to be in the newsprint business these days, but you could usually count on the Register to come down on issues with views from the left. (Of course, the left’s positions at that time would be slightly right of a moderate Republican, today.) Today, the Register has mophed from “The newspaper Iowa depends upon” to the newspaper that sees a market share in the neocons they must depend upon.
    Keep taking your ace inhibitors, or beta blockers, diuretics, or whatever keeps you ticking. Honesty and reason seem to be forgotten virtues in political journalists, today. When you write for the Register, however, you may want to include a bold-face, capital S whenever you employ sarcasm just to warn the voters of Iowa’s fourth congressional district that you really didn’t literally mean that Steve King ate too many rabid coyotes when he grew up outside of Kiron.