President Barack Obama has nominated former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to be the next secretary of defense, citing his willingness to buck the status quo and speak bluntly.
"In the Senate," the president said on Monday, "I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind, even if it wasn't popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom."
Hagel also has considerable experience. In his 12 years in the Senate he served on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees during the post-Cold War defense drawdown and the post-9/11 buildup. He was a deputy administrator at the Veterans Administration during the Reagan years. He was chief executive officer of the G-7 economic summit in 1990.
He currently serves as co-chair of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board. He was an enlisted man during the Vietnam War, earning two Purple Hearts.
No doubt the independent-minded outspokenness that has won the president's confidence will cause Hagel some trouble in the Senate confirmation process. But it should not disqualify his nomination.
Senators should take seriously their constitutional role of "advise and consent" and grill Hagel on the issues that matter most in the upcoming four years. The next defense secretary will have to preside over U.S. withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan, pivoting to the Pacific and confronting regional challenges such as Iran, Syria and North Korea.
The next secretary will have to restructure the military after the wars of the last 11 years and a new era of budget austerity down from current spending levels of nearly $700 billion a year. It may not be possible to get to pre-9/11 levels of $400 billion a year, but what does Hagel think is possible?
The next defense secretary follows Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, both known for their diplomatic skills. Hagel's bluntness certainly would be a change of style both in advising the president and in dealing with friends and adversaries abroad.
During the Bush era, Hagel openly defied his party in questioning the invasion and occupation of Iraq. He has been frank in calling for the United States to be more evenhanded in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. He has been skeptical about pre-emptive military strikes against Iran.
Hagel has taken justifiable heat for bizarre homophobic remarks he made 14 years ago on the ambassadorial nomination of James Hormel, telling the Omaha World Herald: "Ambassadorial posts are sensitive. They are representing America. They are representing our lifestyles, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be openly aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel to do a better job."
While Hagel has since apologized, senators should insist that he explain his comments and his views today. As defense secretary, would Hagel implement the U.S. military's current policy of treating all members of the military equally?
In what can only be described as an overhyped overreaction, Hagel has been labeled by some as an Israel-hater or anti-Semite for stating in a 2006 interview what should be obvious to all: "I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator. I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel." That independence is admirable, not a reason for concern.
As U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, who supports Hagel's nomination, has said, "I strongly believe that a president is entitled to his Cabinet selections unless there is something in an individual's record or background that is disqualifying."
In tough questioning, senators will have to explore whether Hagel has the right temperament for the times and the defense challenges the United States faces. He certainly has the requisite experience to serve as defense secretary.