U.S. President Barack Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel, has now been confirmed by a Senate vote of 58-41, with all the Senate Democrats and four Republicans voting in his favor (the two independents also voted for him). But this nose count hides the reality that a majority of senators, including many Democrats, would almost certainly have preferred a different candidate. The vote reflected not overwhelming support for Hagel and the views he expressed before being nominated, but rather an acknowledgment that a president – especially one so recently reelected by so significant a majority – has the right to pick his cabinet members, unless they are unqualified or disqualified.
President Obama’s original decision to propose Hagel was not popular among many of the Democratic senators who eventually voted for him. Nor was it universally supported by White House aides. But the president stuck with Hagel and presented his supporters in the Senate with a difficult choice: Vote the president’s preference for Hagel or vote their own preference for someone other than Hagel. Led by Jewish and other pro-Israel Democratic Senators such as Chuck Schumer, the Senate gave the president his man.
Hagel did not help himself by his performance during the confirmation hearings. He seemed confused and uncertain about the Obama policy toward Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons. Fortunately for Hagel, he had already received the support of Schumer and other Jewish and pro-Israel senators before the hearings, based on what he had told them in private meetings. Had these senators waited to see how he did during the public hearings, the situation might have been different – at least for some. But having committed themselves to support the president’s choice, they had to put the best face on Hagel’s public performance. It wasn’t easy.
Prior to the president’s decision to nominate Hagel, I was one of many who thought his nomination might send a dangerous message to Iran. Here is what I wrote:
“Were Chuck Hagel to be nominated as secretary of defense, the Iranian mullahs would interpret President Obama’s decision as a signal that the military option was now, effectively, off the table. It would encourage them to proceed with their development of nuclear weapons without fear of an attack from the United States. It would tell them that if they can endure the pain of sanctions and continue the charade of negotiations, they will ultimately be allowed to win the prize of a deliverable nuclear bomb.”
Following President Obama’s nomination of Hagel, I wrote the following:
“Senator Hagel will have an opportunity to clarify, and hopefully to change, his previous statements with regard to these issues. He should be asked probing questions about sanctions, about the military option and about Israel's security. In his answers, he must persuade the Iranian leadership that there is no distance between his current views and those of the president who has nominated him.”
Hagel tried to do that, but with decidedly mixed results. He was pilloried by Republican Senators and defended by Democrats. What should have been a nuanced debate over principles – should Hagel’s changing and confusing views regarding “containment,” “prevention” and “military options” trump the presumption in favor of confirming cabinet nominations? – descended into partisan name calling.
Because the controversy over Hagel’s nomination became so partisan, his confirmation victory cannot be seen as a defeat for Israel or for the pro-Israel lobby in the United States. The major Jewish and pro-Israel organizations took no public position on Hagel’s confirmation – perhaps because they knew they couldn’t stop it after Senator Schumer and several of his pro-Israel colleagues came out in support. If their goal was to get the secretary-designate to commit to positions different from the ones he had previously taken, then they succeeded. It remains to be seen whether the new secretary of state will act more consistently with what he had said in his past paid speeches or what he just promised the senators in private and in public.
Hagel’s nomination and confirmation now makes it more important than ever for President Obama to send an unambiguous message to the Iranian leadership that regardless of who heads the Defense Department, the president makes policy, and the American policy is clear: to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, even if this requires the use of force. Containment must be kept off the table, the military option must be kept on the table, and the mullahs must have no doubt about this policy.
President Obama’s upcoming visit to Israel will provide him a perfect opportunity to assure the Israeli people and their leaders that he still has their back and that he will never allow Iran to develop nuclear weapons – regardless of what his secretary of defense may believe in his heart.
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