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Hagel and defense

Biography isn't policy. President Barack Obama's choice for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, former Nebraska Republican senator, has a resume most politicians can envy: a clean senatorial record, no ethical lapses and two Purple Hearts from a war many opposed and many more tried to avoid.

Some think Hagel's 2006 comment about "the Jewish lobby" should disqualify him, believing it a code word for anti-Semitic sentiments. There is nothing wrong with criticizing the policies of any Israeli government. Israelis likely do this more than foreigners. It's just that Jews are rightly sensitive to the use of words like these because it may mean the person using them wishes to put the nation and policies of Israel on an equal footing with Israel's enemies who have vowed to destroy it.

Recall the remark former Secretary of State James Baker reportedly made in a private conversation with colleagues and you see what I mean. "F--- the Jews," Mr. Baker supposedly said, "they don't vote for us anyway." Mr. Baker was no friend of Israel, frequently siding with Palestinian positions.

Mr. Hagel will likely be confirmed, but that should not mean Republican senators must roll over and relinquish their constitutional power of "advice and consent."

Of even greater concern than Mr. Hagel's apparent attitude toward the only functioning democracy in the Middle East, is what he thinks about American defense in an increasingly tumultuous world. Yes, the defense budget is "bloated," as Mr. Hagel has said, but does that mean the best solution is to dismember it?

In an interview with the Financial Times last fall, Mr. Hagel said, "I think the Pentagon needs to be pared down. I don't think that our military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically, in a long, long time."

Maybe not, but outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, when it appeared that the just averted "fiscal cliff" might bring $600 billion in cuts to defense, indicated that defense budget cuts that large would bring "dire consequences" to national security.

In remarks to the American Iranian Council, in June 2001, Mr. Hagel said, "The national security of the United States is not served by isolating Iran." He also opposed sanctions against Libya and was one of just two senators who voted against renewing sanctions on both countries.

At the Council on Foreign Relations in 2005, Mr. Hagel said, "Any lasting solution to Iran's nuclear weapons program will also require the United States' direct discussions with Iran." A private letter to President George W. Bush also urged the pursuit of "direct, unconditional and comprehensive talks" with Iran.

In 2007, Mr. Hagel voted against an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill that labeled the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization.

Also in 2007, Mr. Hagel said, "The Palestinian people have been chained down for many, many years." Whose fault is that? If he suggests Israel is to blame for their situation, he either misunderstands history or accepts the propaganda of the "Islamist lobby."

In his 2008 book, "America: Our Next Chapter," Mr. Hagel wrote, "Regime change [in Iran] should not be our objective." He did allow that getting rid of Iran's fanatical leadership might be desirable.

According to the Boston Globe, Mr. Hagel and a number of former senior U.S. officials and one current adviser sent a letter to Barack Obama days before he took office asking him to "talk with leaders of Hamas to determine whether the militant group can be persuaded to disarm and join a peaceful Palestinian government..." Hamas leaders have pledged to eradicate Israel. U.S. policy has been that Hamas must first renounce violence, recognize Israel and accept all previous agreements signed by Palestinian leaders, which they, in fact, have not done.

There's one more.

In 1999, Mr. Hagel was the only U.S. senator not to sign a letter condemning anti-Semitism in Russia.

Republican and even some Democratic senators should question Mr. Hagel about all this and more during confirmation hearings. It's their job and responsibility.

Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist. Readers may email him at tmseditors@tribune.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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