In choosing former Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of Defense, has President Obama made an "in your face" appointment, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) complains? Perhaps. Given criticism of Hagel by supporters of Israel and gay rights groups, his nomination was guaranteed to be controversial. So why did he do it? After deciding not to nominate Susan Rice as secretary of State in the face of GOP opposition, the president may have been determined not to surrender to criticism a second time.
But fascinating as the politics around the nomination may be, now that Hagel has been nominated, the only question for the Senate to decide is whether he is qualified to serve. In making that judgment, senators of both parties owe the president considerable — but not complete — deference.
We will reserve our final judgment about the Hagel nomination until after the conclusion of his Senate confirmation hearings. But there's no question that he is a plausible candidate for secretary of Defense, and the questions that have been raised about his past comments and positions so far don't strike us as disqualifying.
A former two-term Republican from Nebraska, Hagel is widely respected for his expertise in foreign and military affairs. He doesn't have the experience of managing a large organization like the Pentagon, but there is no single model for a secretary of Defense. Some, like Robert S. McNamara,had previously been executives of large corporations; others — such as current Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta — administered other government agencies. Still others have had mostly legislative experience. That was the case with William S. Cohen, the former GOP senator from Maine appointed by President Clinton.
Hagel should never have said, as he did some years ago, that some members of Congress were intimidated by a "Jewish lobby"; after all, not all American supporters of Israel are Jewish, and even if they were, it's still a loaded and slightly sinister expression. And Hagel's suggestion in 1998 that an "openly, aggressively gay" diplomat might not be effective was a slur for which he rightly has apologized. Senators have every right to question Hagel about these statements during his Senate confirmation hearings.
We hope, though, that the inquiry will also address more consequential matters, including Iran; the future level of U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan; military ties with Egypt; the full integration of women, gays and lesbians in the armed forces; and how Hagel would reduce what he has called a "bloated" Pentagon bureaucracy.
Members of the Senate may not like all of the answers they receive. But in scrutinizing Hagel's nomination, senators aren't supposed to ask whether the nominee is the person they would appoint if they were president. The proper question is whether the president's appointee is qualified for the position, ethically upright and free of extreme views. If so, the president's choice should be confirmed — "in your face" or not.