The Washington Post's Confused Anti-Hagel Crusade

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JANUARY 11, 2013

The Washington Post's Confused Anti-Hagel Crusade

On December 18, the Washington Post editorial board penned an unusually forceful broadside declaring that Chuck Hagel was "not the right choice" to be secretary of defense. The chief reason, the board wrote, was that Hagel's views on foreign policy and national security were out of step not only with much of Washington, but with the man whom he would be working for: "Mr. Hagel's stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term."

On defense spending, the board wrote, this meant that Hagel was far more sanguine about deep cuts in the military budget than the rest of the administration: 

The current secretary, Leon Panetta, has said the defense “sequester” cuts that Congress mandated to take effect Jan. 1 would have dire consequences for U.S. security. Mr. Hagel took a very different position when asked about Mr. Panetta’s comment during a September 2011 interview with the Financial Times. “The Defense Department, I think in many ways, has been bloated,” he responded. “So I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down.” While both Republicans and Democrats accept that further cuts in defense may be inevitable, few have suggested that a reduction on the scale of the sequester is responsible.

Hagel's variance from others, including President Obama, was even more stark on Iran, the board wrote:

Mr. Obama has said that his policy is to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and that containment is not an option. Mr. Hagel has taken a different view, writing in a 2008 book that “the genie of nuclear weapons is already out of the bottle, no matter what Iran does.” The former senator from Nebraska signed on to an op-ed in The Post this September that endorsed “keeping all options on the table” for stopping Iran’s nuclear program. But Mr. Hagel has elsewhere expressed strong skepticism about the use of force.

We share that skepticism — but we also understand that, during the next year or two, Mr. Obama may be forced to contemplate military action if Iran refuses to negotiate or halt its uranium-enrichment program. He will need a defense secretary ready to support and effectively implement such a decision.

The implication was clear: Obama would be taking a national security risk by installing at the Pentagon someone whose views challenged his own in the most important areas.

Today, the Post editorial board came at Hagel again. Except this one was slightly different. The editorial was titled "Obama's cabinet has a worrisome similarity." It argued:

So far Mr. Obama seems to be assembling a team of Washington insiders who are personally close to him — and thoroughly in sync with his left-of-center views and those of the Democratic Party’s base. (Yes, that applies also to Mr. Hagel, who, despite being a nominal Republican, shares the Democratic left’s skepticism toward the Pentagon budget.) That may seem the obvious thing for a president to do. But we’re struck by the contrast with Mr. Obama’s first-term Cabinet, which included his former rival for the Democratic nomination (Hillary Rodham Clinton), a seasoned moderate Republican of independent stature (Robert M. Gates) and an apolitical financial technocrat (Timothy F. Geithner). The president was much praised then, and rightly, for assembling a team that could challenge and question him as he formulated policy.

So. On December 18, Hagel was a bad choice because he is perilously out of line with President Obama. Today, he is a bad choice because he is "thoroughly in sync with [Obama's] left-of-center views" and won't offer a challenging perspective. Huh. What changed? Did Obama and Hagel go through some sort of secret mind-meld over the holidays, perhaps at a secret hide-out in Hawaii?

Or maybe it's something else. Maybe the Washington Post editorial board just really, really doesn't like Chuck Hagel, doesn't care if its argument for opposing him shifts 180 degrees in a matter of weeks, and doesn't think its readers will notice.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis

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posted in: alec macgillis, politics, washington, washington, the financial times, the washington post, iran, iraq, army, congress, department of defense, navy, pentagon, senate, united states marine corps, chuck hagel, leon panetta, obama, the plank

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