Actions Speak Louder

Paul Greenberg

2/2/2013 12:01:00 AM - Paul Greenberg

Washington continues to talk, but only talk, about the danger of Bashar al-Assad's increasingly desperate regime in Syria distributing its arsenal of high-tech or even nuclear weapons to terrorists throughout the Mideast.

Meanwhile, the Israelis continue to act. Five years ago, they took out a nuclear reactor the Syrians were building without seeing any need to noise it about, realizing that action speaks louder than words -- and that much of the world, especially the Bush administration back then, would discreetly approve.

This time the Israelis aren't saying anything official about what seems to have happened to a convoy of advanced anti-aircraft missiles headed into Hezbollah's hands in Lebanon. It never got there, thanks to an Israeli airstrike. The message that action sent is clear enough. And those who understand the danger that terrorist groups like Hezbollah pose to peace in the region will applaud. Ever so discreetly.

The message being sent by this quite different administration in Washington, headed by Mr. Cool-and-Detached himself, is quite different. Consider the nomination of Chuck Hagel to head American defense, or rather lack of it.

Wait a minute -- didn't this distinguished nominee earn a couple of Purple Hearts in Vietnam? Indeed he did, but if an outstanding war record were enough to assure that he'd make a good secretary of defense, then John McCain would have been nominated and confirmed for that post years ago -- by acclamation.

No war record can make up for Hagel's long political one. Its high point -- well, low point -- came when, after having voted for the war in Iraq, he withdrew his support when American fortunes there were at their lowest ebb, and proposed that American troops withdraw, too. Just what our troops needed: a vote of no confidence when they needed all the support they could get from Washington.

The commander in chief at the time -- George W. Bush -- didn't agree with those like Hagel and then-Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, that it would be useless to send more troops to Iraq. Instead, he ordered the Surge that changed the tide of war. It proved his finest hour in the presidency -- and left Hagel looking like a sunshine soldier, the sort who climbs aboard the bandwagon for a war when it's popular, then jumps off when it no longer is.

Back when everything hung in the balance in Iraq, victory or defeat, success or humiliation, Senator Hagel, in his usual moderate way, called the proposed Surge "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."

When he was asked during his confirmation hearing Thursday -- by John McCain -- if he cared to explain that remark now, the nominee declined, saying he would "defer to the judgment of history." Neat. But not neat enough. For then came McCain's response: "I think history has already made its judgment on the Surge, and, you, sir, are on the wrong side of it."

The rest of Hagel's record in the Senate is equally distinguished -- by calls for retreat and for cuts in American defense. All of which may fit in well with Obama's view of an America that needs to be reined in. (We can all see how well that's working in Syria.) The massive downsizing that this administration proposes for the American military is dangerous enough without having a Chuck Hagel wielding the scalpel, or rather meat ax.

A number of senators, if not yet a sufficient number, have given notice that they won't be going along quietly with the Hagel nomination. May their tribe increase. Before it's too late to stop this ill-advised, and dangerous, nomination.

There are other reasons to oppose Hagel's nomination besides the kind of votes and statements that would make Neville Chamberlain proud. Like the nominee's embarrassing remark about an ambassadorial nominee being too "aggressively gay." (Strange. I can't find any evidence in the record that Hagel ever criticized anyone for being too aggressively straight, à la Bill Clinton.) Happily, the nominee has apologized for that slur.

Then there is the way Senator Hagel used to inveigh against a Jewish Lobby à la the Elders of Zion. But he's done his best to back away from that kind of paranoia. Or at least he's been going from Senate office to Senate office explaining what a great friend he is to the Jews. (With friends like him . . .)

But it's his criticisms of American policy, not Israeli policy that ought to disqualify Chuck Hagel for any post of responsibility in the Department of Defense, let alone at its head. There is such a thing as a president of the United States picking a Cabinet secretary who is entirely too much like himself.