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Chuck Hagel's Pyrrhic Victory

By Tobin Harshaw
February 26, 2013 12:41 PM EST

So Chuck Hagel is finally and officially (by a vote of 58-41) the secretary of defense. But there's not much to celebrate.

President Barack Obama has his man in place, but Hagel's disastrous confirmation hearing before his former Senate colleagues assures he'll start from a position of weakness. 

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, naturally, are well aware of this and will be reminded of it when it comes time to negotiate much-needed cuts to the Pentagon's budget. Veteran war reporter Tom Ricks isn't the only person recalling the dismal tenure of Les Aspin, President Bill Clinton's first defense secretary.

U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska and nominee for defense secretary, listens to questions during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington, D.C.. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

U.S. Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska and nominee for defense secretary, listens to questions during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington, D.C.. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Iran, currently carrying out sham negotiations over its nuclear program in Kazakhstan, can breathe a little easier knowing that the Pentagon's top man has been on record calling for taking the threat of a military strike on Iran's facilities off the table, and has voted against economic sanctions against the regime.

Syria's Bashir al-Assad can also sleep more easily knowing that in Hagel and new Secretary of State John Kerry, Obama has put together a foreign-policy brain trust with a very high bar for any sort of U.S. intervention. 

Conservative commentators, with their carping over Hagel's unfortunate comments about the "Israel Lobby," sabotaged any chance to use the nomination for a rational discussion of steadying U.S.-Israel relations or moving forward with measures against Iran. Liberal commentators (and some of their paleo-conservative  bedfellows) did the same by tarring any Hagel critics as "neoconservatives" who got us into an Iraq disaster. Did they really feel that Hagel, with his votes for the Iraq invasion and against 2007 surge, has been a beacon of good judgment? 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gets another example of the Obama administration's supposed unfriendliness to his government and another public-relations weapon to help him continue his self-destructive settlement policies.

A president should be able to assemble the team of his choosing, so the Senate did the right thing today. Yet the nation would be better off if Hagel had taken a long look at his confirmation performance, realized that the problem wasn't that his ex-friends were mean to him but that he appeared woefully out of his depth, and asked Obama to turn to Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy, or another capable and qualified candidate.  

(Tobin Harshaw writes editorials for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)

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