The uniform trap

Military service is not the best reason to vote for Chuck Hagel for defence secretary. It may even be a handicap
Bill Keller

Almost everybody who weighs in on the nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defence, pro or con, begins by genuflecting to his experience in Vietnam, as if it goes without saying that this is a compelling asset for the civilian who oversees the Pentagon. I'm going to be an exception.

Hagel's wartime service, which earned him awards for valour and two purple hearts, was unquestionably honourable. No doubt he has a deeper awareness than most people that wars are messy, which is not without value. His tour as an infantry squad leader, even more than his Republican Party card, provides useful political cover for a president who favours a less interventionist foreign policy and a smaller defence budget. But the notion that experience of war imparts a special wisdom is one of our enduring fallacies.

Just to be clear, I think the president is entitled to pick a defence secretary who is compatible with his views and has his trust. Besides, as Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates can testify, under this president, foreign and defence matters are run from the White House. The new secretaries of state and defence will probably be, as their predecessors have been, more executors than authors of policy.

And most of the arguments for voting against Hagel's confirmation are flimsy at best. He once described Israel's friends in Washington as "the Jewish lobby"? So does the Israeli press. He's in favour of talking to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah? Great. As another defence minister, Moshe Dayan, once observed: "If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies." Hagel's attitudes toward gay rights and women's freedom are or were, back when he was a senator from a red state unenlightened? I would bet that, like most of us, he has evolved, but in any case those are issues the president decides.

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