Monday, January 07, 2013

Obama misses opportunity with Hagel nomination

By Michael J.W. Stickings

So former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, still a Republican, is President Obama's pick to be the next secretary of defense (though his confirmation by the Senate is hardly a sure thing).

I must say, I'm disappointed. I wrote about the rumors a while back, objecting to Hagel, but I was hoping that it was just a trial balloon and that the president would instead nominate Michèle Flournoy, under secretary of defense for policy (the Pentagon's #3 position) from 2009-12 and one of Obama's chief campaign advisors and spokespeople last year.

It's not that I dislike Hagel. Though a fairly conservative Republican, he's a realist who broke with his party's warmongering militarism during Bush's misadventure in Iraq. And it's not that I think Flournoy is that much better. She's much more progressive, to be sure, but she's also a pragmatic policy wonk who is very much a part of the national security establishment. (What is needed, I think, is a reformer with progressive views and a pragmatic touch. Flournoy comes fairly close, which is why I like her.)

And certainly I take seriously the vehement opposition to Hagel from the neocons, who loathe him with a vengeance for turning on the Iraq War and for not being completely uncritical of Israel. While I don't want to get into an "enemy of my enemy is my friend" sort of thing, it does say good things about Hagel that the likes of Bill Kristol oppose him.

No, what bothers me is that President Obama has decided to fill such a key spot with a Republican. Is no Democrat good enough? Why not Flournoy? She's an incredibly smart and accomplished woman, and she's a solid Democrat. Doesn't this nomination just help perpetuate the myth that Republicans are better on defense and national security, that those are Republican issues?

Again, with Obama in the White House, I don't think we can expect significant reform no matter who heads the Pentagon. In that sense, I don't think Hagel or Flournoy would be all that different. But with Flournoy at least there would have been the possibility of some meaningfully progressive reform, with a Democrat (and a woman at that) taking the lead on guiding the military forward.

On a number of levels, this is another missed opportunity for Obama. Not that he seems to care.

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