Here’s a revealing fact highlighting the truly meritocratic system of American presidential cabinet-making: while four of the last six presidential elections have been won by Democrats, four of the last six defense secretaries will have been Republicans.
On Monday, President Obama announced that his departing head of the Pentagon, former Democratic Congressman Leon Panetta, will be replaced by former GOP Senator Chuck Hagel. In making such a bipartisan pick, Obama is not only conceding one of the sad truisms of Washington — namely, that it’s hard to find a Democrat significantly learned in (or even interested in) military and security matters — but following in the footsteps of past Democratic administrations as well. William Cohen, Bill Clinton’s longest-serving defense secretary, was also a former Republican politician, and Obama himself ran most of his first term with a Pentagon headed by Republican Robert M. Gates, a Bush-era holdover.
In a parliamentary system, it’s impossible to imagine such a plum cabinet spot being willingly conceded this way; almost any hack would be better than a member of the, ugh, opposition (I’m reminded of the fact that Canada’s minister of national defense in the aftermath of 9-11 was Art Eggleton, the washed-up former mayor of Toronto). The fact that Obama resisted the temptation to stick, say, Barbara Boxer, in DoD reflects well not only on the President’s post-partisan charity, but also the institutionalized high expectations of the political system he leads.
This week’s other headline-grabbing cabinet shuffle was of course the replacement of tired and ailing Hillary Clinton with forgotten 2004 presidential also-ran John Kerry as Obama’s secretary of state, in what is admittedly a far more conventional pick. One of the great ironies, however, is that this former Democrat flag-bearer will probably have an easier time being confirmed by Republicans in the Senate than his intended GOP cabinet-mate.
The problem is ideological. Hagel, a 66-year-old Vietnam vet and former head of the USO, is one of those almost-extinct creatures, a free-thinking, moderate Republican — particularly in matters of foreign policy. On practically every contentious national security type-issue of the last decade, Hagel has been a cautious, pragmatic realist, championing positions that have frequently brought him into alliance with some of Congress’ most liberal Democrats.
Though Senator Hagel voted to authorize the invasion of Iraq in 2002, it was a vote he came to regret. He quickly embraced the Hillary Clinton line that he had expected the Bush administration to pursue “more diplomacy” before military action, and spent much of the remainder of his Senate career calling for restraint and withdrawal. Like John Kerry, he saw Vietnam analogies everywhere in what he openly called a war for oil, and was a staunch opponent of the 2007 surge. He chose to stay neutral in 2008 rather than endorse John McCain.
On Iran, he was skeptical even of sanctions. On Afghanistan, he thinks we’ve stayed “well beyond our mission.” On Syria, he believes a US invasion is “the last thing you want.” The Pentagon budget? “Bloated.” The UN? “I’m a strong supporter.”
Most infamously of all, however, Hagel has been a consistent skeptic of Israel, and an almost equally consistent Palestinian apologist. He’s argued for greater understanding of why Palestinians commit terror attacks, advocated direct talks with Hamas and Hezbollah, and has been a sometimes inelegant critic of what he’s dubbed the “intimidation” tactics of Washington’s powerful “Jewish Lobby.”
These positions are all heretical to large portions of the GOP establishment, and reaction to the Hagel nomination has been swift and harsh. GOP.com has churned out an enormous opposition press release documenting his various sins of word and deed, several of his former caucusmates have vowed to vote against his confirmation, and Rick Santorum’s Super PAC has launched an ad campaign targeting a man they describe as “anti-Israel” and “pro-Iran.”
Leftists and anti-neocon right-wingers, on the other hand, are delighted.
“A much-needed declaration that some mild dissent on foreign policy orthodoxies and Israel is permitted,” says Glen Greenwald. “Exciting beyond measure,” agrees Scott McConnell in the American Conservative. Pat Buchanan is a fan, and even Michael Moore seems stoked.
On both sides, there is, of course, a tendency to overstate the importance of unorthodox cabinet picks like Hagel. Though the views of the nation’s new defense secretary may well be “left of Barack Obama,” in the words of Charles Krauthammer, in practical terms, being to “the left” of the President could ultimately mean little more than his place on the cabinet seating chart. Foreign policy remains the ultimate prerogative of the White House, after all, and if the president — especially this president — decides there are going to be wars with Iran or invasions of Syria (or Mali), they’re probably going to happen.
If nothing else, however, the pick does give credence to the idea — previously spouted only by the sappiest of partisans — that Obama truly does take inspiration form President Lincoln’s famous “team of rivals” approach to cabinet governance. We can now say that entrance to the President’s inner circle is determined not merely by loyalty or conformity, but genuine competence and contrarianism.
Regardless of how much beltway orthodoxy Hagel actually winds up battling once in office, the mere fact of his nomination is a solid blow against politics-as-usual.
And for that it deserves praise.