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The Right’s Man

Should Chuck Hagel be Obama’s Secretary of Defense?

Barack Obama recently raised eyebrows by stating that he would consider naming Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to be his Secretary of Defense. This type of bipartisan declaration gives warm fuzzies to many members of the foreign policy community who yearn for a bygone era when politics stopped at the water’s edge. (As far as I can tell, that era never really existed.) Nevertheless, the idea has merit and is worth exploring.

Obama’s governing philosophy does not promote a traditional Solomonic approach to bipartisanship, where Republicans and Democrats compromise for the sake of compromise, and agree on watered-down policies that make little sense and little difference. Instead, his candidacy is based on promoting a new kind of politics--one that is based on mobilizing Democrats, Independents, and Republicans around a set of ideas designed to achieve real change. But these ideas are ultimately liberal ideas--much in the same way that Ronald Reagan was able to cross over and build a broad coalition for change that was fundamentally conservative in its ideology.

Although Hagel clearly has a conservative voting record on social and economic issues, on foreign policy and national security--which would, after all, be his portfolio--he has routinely voted with Democrats and would philosophically agree with a President Obama. Even though he voted for the 2002 resolution to go to war in Iraq, Hagel has for a number of years now been an outspoken critic of the administration’s handling of the war, and in 2007, he supported the Democratic Congress’s efforts to end the war. (Unlike Republican Senators John Warner or Richard Lugar, who criticized the president but continued to vote with him.) Moreover, in December 2002, in advance of the war, he penned an op-ed with Joe Biden advocating for a more robust plan for the postwar phase, calling for greater engagement with our allies and warning that the Bush administration had done a poor job preparing the American people for war.

On Iran, Hagel has been a consistent advocate for direct engagement and has warned against the bellicose World War III language of the Bush administration. In fact, he voted against the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, which put him to the left of many Democrats (including Hillary Clinton). On military issues, he has been one of the leaders in the Senate, working with Jim Webb on the dwell time amendment that would put tighter restrictions on the proportion of time American troops could spend in combat versus how much time they spend at home. Hagel and Webb have also been promoting a new G.I. Bill to help returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans pay for their education. And Hagel has been a staunch opponent of the administration’s justification of “enhanced interrogation techniques”--also known as torture.

Hagel also happens to be eminently qualified. He served in Vietnam, where he received two Purple Hearts, and has been a senior member of both the foreign relations and intelligence committees for a number of years.

In short, Secretary of Defense Hagel would not be the same as a Secretary of Defense McCain. It would not be a question of splitting the difference on policy, but rather a question of finding a Republican who happened to agree with the fact that we need to leave Iraq, engage with Iran and the rest of the region, prioritize Afghanistan and Pakistan, take better care of our returning veterans, and send a clear message to the world that America does not torture.

Still, there is a major drawback to the idea of a Secretary Hagel: Appointing a Republican Secretary of Defense would reinforce the “weak on security” stereotypes that have plagued Democrats for a generation. Since 1972, Democrats have faced a national security gap in the eyes of the American public. On average, Republicans have held a 20-to-30 point advantage on the question of who is best equipped to handle America’s national security, and Gallup data going back to 1972 shows that in every election in which the relative importance of domestic and security issues was roughly on par, Republicans have won. The two elections most dominated by national security issues (1972 and 1984) were Republican blowouts. The three in which economic concerns far outweighed international issues were Democratic victories (1976, 1992, 1996). And in the 2004 presidential election, of the one-third of voters who named national security as their top issue, nearly 60 percent went to George Bush--essentially handing him the election.

This is not a strictly political problem; it has a profound effect on policy. When one party has the monopoly on security, bad decisions tend to get made. From the Iraq War vote, to the Patriot Act, to FISA, to military tribunals, Republicans are too often able to bully Democrats into bad national security votes. With greater confidence and higher approval ratings on security comes a greater willingness to stand up and fight back on these bad ideas.

If they win in November, Democrats will finally have an opportunity to turn this dynamic around. The 2006 elections represented a major milestone, as Democrats were able to take back the House and the Senate, based in large part on their opposition to the Iraq War. But this victory spoke more to the public’s loss of confidence in the Republicans’ ability to lead on foreign policy than it did to the public’s inherent confidence in the Democrats’ ability to lead. The question facing Democrats today is: Was 2006 a blip in the continued Republican domination of the national security issue, or will it represent a turning point?

Appointing a Republican as Secretary of Defense could send a message that Democrats are still too uncomfortable with the military to take on the responsibility of defending our country by themselves. Moreover, there’s no reason not to appoint a Democrat. The party has a deep defense bench that includes military and defense advisors for the Obama and Clinton campaigns--many of whom have served in the Pentagon in previous administrations. Some of Chuck Hagel’s congressional colleagues such as Senators Jim Webb or Jack Reed are just as qualified to be Secretary of Defense, and have the added benefit of being Democrats.

Besides, there are other posts an Obama administration could offer Hagel that would achieve the results they are hoping for without the same drawbacks. The Director of National Intelligence might be the ideal position for a Republican member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The intelligence community has been badly damaged by the politization of intelligence in the run up to the Iraq War, and appointing a qualified Republican such as Hagel would send the message that intelligence analysis is above politics.

Another option could be installing him as a Special Envoy--an undoubtedly important and high-profile position, but one that doesn’t hold the same symbolic value as Secretary of Defense. There are plenty of trouble spots in the world that will likely require an official of Hagel’s stature to coordinate overall policy, including Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, or North Korea.

Engaging thoughtful Republicans such as Chuck Hagel and giving them prominent roles in an Obama administration makes a lot of sense. It sends the right signals regarding national unity and a new kind of politics, and as long as it can be done while still appointing people who fundamentally agree with Obama’s views, there is not much of a downside. Still, given the historic national security deficit that Democrats have faced, and given the breadth of talent in the Democratic national security community, why do it if you don’t have to?

Ilan Goldenberg is the Policy Director at the National Security Network.

By Ilan Goldenberg