What's Behind the Chuck Hagel Confirmation Fight

It is up to President Barack Obama to nominate whoever he wants for his cabinet, including Chuck Hagel as defense secretary.

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Sen. Chuck Hagel (right) talks with reporters on Capitol Hill about the Bush administration's Iraq policy in July 2007.

You know the partisan environment in Washington is getting worse when Republican senators are accusing a fellow Republican of being too far out of the "mainstream" to serve in a Democratic president's cabinet.

President Obama has selected former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican, to serve as Defense Secretary. Hagel is widely respected as a foreign policy mind, is a war hero, and—importantly—understands how the Senate works and how defense budgets work. At a time when Congress will need to make some trims in the defense budget (presuming they aren't forced into the "sequestration" they have imposed on themselves as a yet-unsuccessful way of bringing about budget cuts), knowing where defense programs could be trimmed without damaging national security is a real plus.

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But Hagel is already under assault, partly for comments he made earlier about the "Jewish lobby." It was an inartful phrase, but to call it anti-Semitism is a stretch. Hagel was referring to the very real power of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, a group which indeed lobbies—every effectively—on matters relating to Israel. Failing to recognize AIPAC's influence (and it has every right to organize and attempt to influence Congress) would display a level of naivete that should in itself disqualify someone to join the cabinet.

Hagel also opposed the war in Iraq and the "surge" many credit with helping to bring the war to a close. Those are legitimate policy differences, but so what? Those are reasons for President Bush, who initiated the war in Iraq, to pass over Hagel. It's surely not a reason for a Democratic president—one who opposed the war (but wasn't forced to vote on it at the time)—to disqualify a cabinet candidate.

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The issue here isn't Hagel's positions on the war (which are far more "mainstream" now than when the war was begun) or his mangled comments about Israel. It's about the right of a president to choose his or her own cabinet. Senate confirmation exists to keep a president from filling a cabinet with wildly unqualified or corrupt officials. It's not there so lawmakers in the party outside the White House—and in the minority in the Senate—can force their choice on the president.

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