In selecting former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense and Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts to replace Hillary Clinton at the State Department, President Obama has made two strong choices. Both are well-qualified, experienced and well-known figures from the foreign policy world.
Nevertheless, both men have some tough questions to answer about their positions and statements as U.S. senators, and the sooner they do, the better to ease concerns about their views on Israel, the Middle East and Cuba’s role in this hemisphere. Even before the president nominated Mr. Hagel, some senators seemed eager to pounce on the selection.
Senators have an unquestioned duty to examine the credentials of Cabinet nominees. But the controversy over Mr. Hagel, and, before that, the flap over the possible nomination of Susan Rice as secretary of state (derailed before it happened), suggest that partisan politics in today’s hyper-partisan Washington is driving this ugly fight.
Mr. Kerry seems to have a less rocky path toward approval, given his long tenure in the Senate and chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee. It doesn’t hurt that his ratification would open up a Senate seat in Massachusetts that Republicans think they can win.
Ironically, it’s the choice of a Republican for the Pentagon that’s giving Senate Republicans fits. Mr. Hagel’s own views as a foreign policy centrist aren’t that different from Sen. Kerry’s, but his reputation as a maverick has come back to haunt him.
Never mind that the former senator is a decorated combat veteran from the Vietnam era. He angered Republicans by criticizing George W. Bush’s Iraq policies and by endorsing some Democrats for office, which seems to be the real issue — but shouldn’t be. Neither refusing to toe the party line nor displaying bipartisanship should doom any Cabinet nomination. Since when is that a disqualification for office?
He’s not afraid to speak his mind, which is what a president needs in the Situation Room. And he often expresses the need for caution in using military force — a refreshing attitude by a secretary of defense who will have to deal with brass hats sometimes too willing to put their hardware to use.
Still, there are disturbing signals and mixed messages that he must clarify during confirmation hearings. Critics have focused on a 2006 statement in which he said “the Jewish lobby” — instead of “pro-Israel” lobby — intimidates some members of Congress. Mr. Hagel has conceded those were ill-chosen words. Israeli leaders, meanwhile, have not voiced concerns about his nomination and he calls Israel “a friend and ally.”
Detractors also say Mr. Hagel is soft on Iran. He has rejected unilateral sanctions against the Persian nation and argued against using force to stop it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, but recently called for “keeping all options on the table, including the use of force.”
Like any nominee for a sensitive national security post, Mr. Hagel should face rigorous questioning. His views on Cuba and Venezuela, declared foes of the United States in our own hemisphere, need to be examined.
Sen. Kerry shouldn’t get a pass either. America’s chief diplomat will have to take a tougher stance on some issues — Venezuela and Cuba come to mind, again — than the views of his Massachusetts constituency. Is he up to it?
Critics must give both nominees a fair hearing. That means asking tough questions and demanding straight answers. But it also means focusing on real policy issues, not politics or settling old scores.