Public Opinion Is on Chuck Hagel's Side

The public prefers Sen. Chuck Hagel's more thoughtful approach to the use of force over the muscular unilateralism of his opponents.

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Heather Hurlburt is the executive director of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C. Heather previously served in the Clinton administration as speechwriter to the president, and as speechwriter and policy planning staff for Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Follow her on Twitter at @NatSecHeather.

This morning Bob Woodward has a Washington Post column about President Obama's choice of former senator Chuck Hagel for the Pentagon. Woodward focuses on Obama's feelings about war—that it is always abhorrent and sometimes necessary—and draws a connection from there to Hagel. But the line that explains both the president's choice and the violent reaction of a minority of the conservative political and national security communities is earlier in the piece. 

Hagel recalls himself telling the new president: "We are at a time where there is a new world order. We don't control it. You must question everything, every assumption, everything they"—the military and diplomats—"tell you. Any assumption 10 years old is out of date. You need to question our role. You need to question the military. You need to question what are we using the military for."

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

The extent to which the United States can control the international order, and unilaterally shape it to our ends, has been in some ways the disagreement underlying the politics of foreign policy for at least eight years now. President Obama won two national elections with the argument—and the second time, with four years of evidence—that trading unilateralism and efforts at control for (still muscular) engagement and influence could provide for U.S. security as well and in fact are better than the failed efforts at "control" that had been on display in Iraq and the Middle East.

Hagel's own journey from Iraq War supporter to opponent reflects a real intellectual effort to engage with reality beyond our shores—reality in which power has spread and even, in some places, democratized, over the last few decades. He then moved on to begin, as he advised the president, questioning other pillars of the Cold War order—the utility of nuclear weapons, the value of increased Pentagon spending in a time of austerity, the value of support for Israel that fails to ask Israeli governments hard questions.

The outpouring of support for Hagel from bipartisan former Cabinet officials, senior diplomats, and retired flag officers—men (mostly) who have in the past been highly reticent to get involved in the confirmation process—reflects how much the American security establishment has been forced to confront this reality, and has had its nose rubbed in it, from the United Nations in New York to Brasilia to Beijing. The U.S. national security establishment has not seen anything like this in decades, if ever.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Should Chuck Hagel Be Confirmed as Secretary of Defense?]

The most recent salvo—a letter from 13 former top officials—expresses, subtly, the impatience of the security mainstream with what passes for political debate on the issues:  "His approach to national security and debates about the use of American power is marked by a disciplined habit of thoughtfulness that is sorely needed."

Hagel's confirmation hearing is this week and, while his opposition targets senators with expensive astro-turf ad campaigns and hysterical charges of anti-Semitism, he seems likely to be confirmed. Where his supporters—and the administration—take this opportunity to have with the American public the discussion we've been having at very high volume inside the Beltway is now the real question. Public opinion shows that the public prefers Hagel's more thoughtful approach to the use of force over the muscular unilateralism of his opponents. Trouble is, they haven't had a clear sense of what those policies and tools might look like. Now's the chance for all the Hagel fans newly-entered into the public discourse to stay—with a disciplined habit of thoughtfulness that, it seems, Americans and not just President Obama crave.

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