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NJ Star Ledger Endorses Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense

Chuck Hagel's good sense on Iran, Israel, Pentagon: Editorial

Bank on this prediction: Opposition to former Sen. Chuck Hagel as defense secretary will fade in the coming weeks as the overheated criticism of his nomination faces scrutiny.

The opposition has come mostly from the armchair hawks in the neocon movement, and from the most ardent supporters of the conservative Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

None of the criticism would justify denying President Obama this choice. In fact, it is refreshing to hear that Hagel wants to strategically cut what he termed a “bloated” Pentagon budget. And it’s reassuring that his personal experience in battle has made him reluctant to go to war.

Hagel’s views on Iran are a key target of critics because he voted against early unilateral U.S. sanctions over Tehran’s nuclear program, and stressed the dangers of a military attack. That fails the neocon litmus test for belligerency and prompted William Kristol, the conservative writer, to call Hagel an “appeaser.”

But Hagel is dead right that a military strike on Iran could be catastrophic. A bombing campaign would take weeks, beginning with a sustained effort to knock out Iran’s substantial air defenses. Heavy civilian casualties would be inevitable, because many of Iran’s nuclear sites are in urban areas, often in hardened underground locations.

What would be gained? Defense Secretary Leon Panetta estimated that an attack would set back Iran’s program by one or two years. It would also prompt Iran to redouble its efforts, according to Meir Dagan, director of the Israeli spy agency Mossad from 2002 to 2011.

“A military attack will give the Iranians the best excuse to pursue the nuclear race,” he warned. “(Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei will say, ‘I was attacked by a country with nuclear capabilities. My nuclear program was peaceful, but I must protect my country.’?”

It is not fashionable to talk about these dangers. But it’s reassuring to hear that Hagel appreciates them fully.

On Israel, Hagel has criticized the repeated expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But that’s been bipartisan U.S. policy for decades. Every time Israel bites off another piece of the Palestinian land, it diminishes the chances for a two-state solution and undermines moderate Palestinian leaders who want a negotiated peace.

Don’t forget that when Israel acts like a bully, America absorbs a share of the global resentment. The fact that few members of Congress dare to point this out underscores Hagel’s point about the outsized power of the pro-Israeli lobby, which he mistakenly called the “Jewish lobby.” Yesterday, after Obama made the nomination, some key Jewish groups indicated they would drop their opposition.

Hagel has taken flak, too, for opposing the 1997 nomination of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. Hormel is openly gay, and Hagel said that would undermine his effectiveness. But Hagel has apologized, and enough time has passed to turn the other cheek.

Our hope is that Hagel remains determined to cut the Pentagon budget as secretary, and to rethink America’s outsized military footprint in the world. It is obscene that we spend more today in real dollars than we did when Ronald Reagan faced the might of a Soviet military machine that no longer exists. Despite the fiscal crisis, we still spend huge sums on bases and weapons systems the Pentagon doesn’t even want.

U.S. Sens. Frank Lautenberg and Robert Menendez (both D-N.J.) said yesterday they were undecided on Hagel, and would meet with him before hearings begin. But most opposition is expected to come from Republicans, who resent the fact that Hagel turned against the Iraq war and denounced the Bush administration as incompetent. To us, that seems to confirm the man’s good judgment.

Hagel’s history

PERSONAL: Volunteered to serve in Vietnam in 1968, awarded two Purple Hearts and still has shrapnel in his chest. Deputy administrator of Veterans Administration under Reagan. After stint in private sector, elected as GOP senator from Nebraska in 1996, and re-elected in 2002. Considered a presidential run in 2008, hinted he might run as an independent. Teaches at Georgetown University.

IRAQ: Voted for the war resolution in 2002, but became a sharp critic and in 2007 joined Democrats in supporting a resolution setting a March 2008 goal for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

ISRAEL: Described the pro-Israel lobby in the United States as “the Jewish lobby” and that many senators are intimidated by it. But supported huge flow of military and economic aid to Israel.

IRAN: Questioned effectiveness of unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran, and voted against them in 2001. Later voted in favor of sanctions. Has cautioned about the risks of a military attack.

DEFENSE BUDGET: Criticized Pentagon budget as “bloated” and said last year, “The Pentagon needs to be pared down. I don’t think that our military has really looked at themselves strategically, critically, in a long time.”

GAY RIGHTS: Opposed the 1997 nomination of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg, saying, “I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay -- openly, aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel -- to do an effective job.” Recently apologized, saying his views have changed.

The Star-Ledger

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