Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Should Chuck Hagel be our next defense secretary?

I haven't felt that I knew enough one way or the other to have an opinion on whether Chuck Hagel should be the next US defense secretary. These are my thoughts on two issues with his nomination - his views on Israel and gay and lesbian rights.

Israel

I am disturbed by some of the statements that the Fact Checker blog of the Washington Post has gathered from Hagel. The blog puts them in the context of the entire speech where they can be found.
Hagel says his positions on Israel has been “completely distorted,” though he acknowledges that “I have also questioned some very cavalier attitudes taken about very complicated issues in the Middle East.” Certainly, Hagel has expressed sentiments that many U.S. politicians tend to avoid, including a consistent concern for the plight of Palestinians.
I agree with his concern for the Palestinians, but I don't like the way in which he has blamed Israel for problems in the Middle East that Israel is not responsible for. In a discussion with then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1998, about getting Arab states' support for US policy vis-a-vis Iraq, he asked her, "Do you believe part of this problem is the perception in the Arab world that we’ve tilted way too far toward Israel in the Middle East peace process?" She says no. After Albright's response, he asks again, "But surely you believe that they're linked? You don't believe that there's any linkage between the Middle East peace process and what's happening in Iraq?"

I think Albright was right - what did sanctions against Iraq have to do with whether negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians were going well or badly? Does everything that happens in the Middle East, even when it does not involve Israel, actually involve Israel? Remember, Israel did not participate in the Gulf War, even though it was attacked by Iraq.

I also find it offensive what he said, in an interview with Aaron David Miller, talking about about someone asking him a question during a meeting in New York, "I said, ‘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. If I go run for Senate in Israel, I’ll do that. Now I know most Senators don’t talk like I do.”

This is offensive to me because it comes across as if Hagel is questioning the patriotism of the questioner. If he's not an Israeli senator, then what does that make the questioner? Someone who is more loyal to Israel than the US? The quote doesn't tell us the speech or meeting where he made this statement, so we don't know if he's speaking to someone Jewish or not. In the US there is a classic trope that accuses American Jews of being more loyal to Israel than to the US, and whether or not Hagel intended to do that, it feels to me that he's evoking that accusation.

Do any of these statements mean he shouldn't be the next US defense secretary? Probably not. He doesn't make US foreign policy - President Obama does. But I don't feel particularly happy that Obama nominated him rather than Susan Rice. Why did Obama fold on Rice? Senate Republicans opposed her (at least some of them), and probably the same Senate Republicans will oppose Hagel. Why wasn't it worth supporting Rice in the face of the same opponents?

Gay and lesbian equality

In addition to his statements about Israel, Hagel has also said and done other things that I don't agree with - for example, his offensive remarks about the gay man that Clinton nominated to be ambassador to Luxembourg, whom he accused of being an "aggressively gay" and his consistent anti-gay voting record in the Senate. The New Yorker reports:
But the Hagel nomination also presents challenges for Americans who care about civil rights. When Hagel served in the United States Senate, as a Republican from Nebraska, he consistently voted against gay rights—his record earned him a zero-per-cent rating (three times) from the Human Rights Campaign, the leading gay-rights lobby. Among other things, Hagel voted against extending basic employment nondiscrimination protections and the federal hate-crimes law to cover gay Americans. 
In 1998, after President Bill Clinton nominated a prominent gay-rights advocate from San Francisco, James Hormel, to be the ambassador to Luxembourg, Hagel, then a Senator, seemed to go out of his way to malign not only Hormel—“openly, aggressively gay”—but gay Americans generally, with comments that were blatantly offensive even then; they suggested that the very fact of being gay should disqualify one from representing America abroad.
Hagel was also opposed to gays and lesbians openly serving in the US military (ironically enough, Israel accepted openly gay and lesbian soldiers in 1993 - at just the time that Don't Ask, Don't Tell was passed in the US). This raises another question - while the defense secretary doesn't make foreign policy, he does direct the US military. Now that DADT has been repealed, will Hagel aggressively support the equality of gay and lesbian soldiers?

The New Yorker article continues:
Hagel should—and, presumably, will—be pressed to do substantially more than give his assurance that he will carry out the President’s policies on gay rights. If he has truly changed his views, he needs to explain the context of that conversion and lay out a plan for making the Pentagon and the military more welcoming for gay and lesbian Americans. (“I want to hear how he’s evolved on this issue,” Tammy Baldwin, the newly elected openly gay Senator from Wisconsin told MSNBC.) He will also need to speak to the issue of gay-marriage equality and how it impacts gay military families who are among those most affected by the Defense of Marriage Act, under review this term by the Supreme Court.
I hope that this issue is one that Obama will press Hagel on. I also wish that Obama had considered  more carefully whether it was a good idea to put a man in control of the Defense Department who had voted consistently against gay rights and made offensive anti-gay remarks about a gay man nominated to be an ambassador.

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