WASHINGTON — In Vietnam in 1968, two separate mine explosions left Chuck Hagel with shrapnel in his chest and burns on his face and arms.
This is not a man who is going to shrink from a fight with the chicken hawks of the Senate. President Obama hit the right theme in nominating Hagel on Monday to be secretary of defense — the first enlisted man and the first Vietnam veteran to be so honored.
“To this day, Chuck bears the scars — and the shrapnel — from the battles he fought in our name,” Obama said during an appearance with Hagel and other officials in the East Room. “Maybe most importantly,” Obama added, “Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction. He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that’s something we only do when it’s absolutely necessary.”
Behind the men was the Washington Monument, concealed by the East Room’s gold curtains. In front of them, on Pennsylvania Avenue, workers were finishing the parade reviewing stand for Obama’s second inauguration. For the president, who has too often shied from forceful leadership, the Hagel nomination was a welcome sign that he is willing to pick a fight in his second term. And Hagel is worth fighting for. The Republican former senator from Nebraska should and probably will be confirmed by the Senate, despite irresponsible claims that he is anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, anti-gay and a coddler of Iran. Most of that is false and the rest is irrelevant: As head of the Pentagon, Hagel would not determine foreign policy.
What he would do is lead the people who fight wars — and for that, the old infantry sergeant is uniquely qualified. When he says that war should be the last resort, he speaks with a moral authority that few of those senators who would judge him can match.
In accepting the nomination, Hagel spoke of the troops as his top priority, the “men and women in uniform and their families … who have sacrificed so much over more than a decade of war.” The only agenda item he mentioned was to “strengthen our country and strengthen our country’s alliances.”
Alliances were a Hagel trademark in the Senate, where, although he voted to authorize the Iraq War, he became a scalding critic of the George W. Bush administration’s unilateralist policies and bungled prosecution of the conflict.
His criticism of the administration antagonized many of his Republican colleagues, who are now returning the favor. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas called Hagel’s record “extremely concerning.” Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana said Hagel’s confirmation “would send exactly the wrong message.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said Hagel’s views send “the worst possible signal.” Neither Cornyn nor Vitter lists military service in his biography. Graham was an Air Force lawyer. Even some Republicans who once praised Hagel view him differently now that Obama has embraced him. When Hagel left the Senate four years ago, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky praised his “clear voice and stature on national security and foreign policy.”
But on Sunday, the Senate minority leader retreated, telling ABC News’ George Stephanopoulos only that Hagel is “outspoken” and that it is necessary to “take a look at all the things that Chuck has said over the years.”
Hagel, who fought from foxholes, knows better than to expect loyalty from former Senate colleagues, and he reacted with equanimity when neoconservative critics, hearing rumors of his nomination, put out word that he is anti-Semitic. “What a town!” he remarked at the time. Standing to Obama’s right in the East Room on Monday, Hagel wore a slight frown beneath his droopy eyes as the president lavished praise on him. “As a young private, and then a sergeant, he served with honor alongside his own brother,” Obama recounted. “When Chuck was hit by shrapnel, his brother saved him. When his brother was injured by a mine, Chuck risked his life to pull him to safety.”
Hagel, hands at his side, continued to wear his unimpressed frown as the man he would succeed, Leon Panetta, said Hagel is “a patriot, he’s a decorated combat veteran, and … his deep understanding of the security issues facing this country make him the right choice to be secretary of defense.”
Panetta said he will return home to his California walnut farm to deal “with a different set of nuts.” It will now be Hagel’s task to crack the nuts Panetta leaves behind — beginning with those in the Senate.
Dana Milbank is a columnist for The Washington Post whose work appears Mondays and Fridays. Email him at email@example.com.