The nomination of Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Defense is, at first, a strange move by the president. Even Democrats are more than a little miffed about his past positions on Israel (to say nothing of the left’s concern for his comments on homosexuals – Jim Geraghty has the details).
From a political perspective, however, it makes perfect sense – if you realize it’s not just the American electorate on his mind.
Regarding the American voters, appointing a Republican with views not usually affiliated with the Republican Party is a move Democrats have played for decades (of course, Republicans have done it with disaffected Democrats as well). In this case it has the added bonus of angering the McCain-Graham faction of the party, and thus enabling the president to label even the most moderate Republicans as radical, turn-on-their-friend crazies. As for the Israel-friendly Democrats who are concerned about Hagel, I’m guessing the president thinks he can finesse that problem – and I can’t say he’s wrong.
The bigger recipient for this may be the Israeli electorate, who will elect a new Parliament in two weeks. At present, it appears all but certain that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be returned to office against a disorganized left (Reuters) and a new party that is eve further to his right (Reuters again). That said, Washington tends to think it has much more effect on Israeli voters than it actually does. The Hagel nomination may very well be an attempt by the Administration to shock Israeli voters away from Netanyahu.
There’s only one problem with that idea, since 1996, Israeli voters have paid little attention to Washington – and the first major Israeli leader to withstand Washington’s opprobrium was none other than Netanyahu himself.
More to the point, a Hagel appointment is a glaringly missed opportunity. With our allies in East Asia desperate for American leadership against the Chinese Communist Party – and an Administration that has at times even seemed eager to provide that leadership – the Pentagon appointment could have gone to someone focused on reorienting the military to a Pacific-centered enterprise. Instead, Hagel’s history shows he is more likely to follow conventional wisdom, which one had hoped the president had escaped regarding eastern Asia.