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Flexible Thinking Is Key for Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense

Chuck Hagel answers a question on Capitol Hill in Washington (REUTERS/William Philpott).

Senator Chuck Hagel is a fascinating choice to be secretary of defense. 

The selection clearly reflects President Obama’s strong sense of kinship and loyalty to Hagel—a man who stood up for Obama back in 2008 during the presidential race, and a man who was not afraid to challenge his own party or the conventional wisdom on Iraq, Iran, Israel, and other matters.  With voices like Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s coming strongly to Hagel’s defense of late, I am favorably inclined myself.  Specifically, on Iran policy, I welcome Hagel’s skepticism about the use of force—because a military strike on Iran would be considerably more foreboding and fraught than many seem to recognize.  Even if we ultimately carry it out, as the least bad of numerous options, I would hope that it would occur only after all other recourses were exhausted.  Hagel could help ensure that outcome.

Still, it is fair to acknowledge the views of Hagel’s critics and the legitimacy of some of their positions.  For example, given what Senator Hagel has argued over the years, I would want to know answers to questions like these:

  • You opposed the Iraq surge back in early 2007, which was perhaps understandable at the time, but now that we can all see that it worked (at least within certain military parameters), how do you feel about it now?
  • If you have opposed Iran sanctions when in the Senate, do you still do so now, in light of the regime’s subsequent behavior, including the stolen elections of June 2009 as well as the continued pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability?
  • In Afghanistan, what would be the consequences of an accelerated drawdown, of the type you seem to prefer, for the Afghan army and police force that depend on NATO partnering at present, and also for the Afghan political system more generally as it prepares for 2014 elections?

It is not so much that any of these questions have right answers.  But they are all matters where Hagel’s previous views have raised eyebrows and where new information may require some revision in his (and many others’, including my own) thinking on the subjects.  It would be important to get a sense of his willingness to rethink controversial views when evidence challenges them.  If Senator Hagel demonstrates that he has such sensibilities—that he is a flexible and empirical thinker—I believe his contrarian and independent way of thinking could be very useful to this president and this country, and would hope the Senate would promptly confirm.

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