By Bill Crawford
A week ago Monday, President Barack Obama nominated former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, calling him “an American patriot.”
The prior Sunday, Sen.. Roger Wicker tweeted that he would “strongly oppose” the nomination. “Chuck Hagel would be a divisive and disastrous nominee for SecDef,” read the tweet.
Remarkable that Wicker took such an early, strong position against someone with Mississippi ties.
Hagel is married to the former Lilabet Ziller of Meridian. They met in 1982 when Hagel served as a deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration under Ronald Reagan and Ziller served as Congressman Sonny Montgomery’s staffer on the Veterans Affairs Committee. They married in 1985 and are regular visitors to the Queen City and local haunts like Jean’s Restaurant. “He relaxes more in Meridian than anywhere else,” Lil told The Meridian Star.
A veteran and volunteer infantryman in the Vietnam War where he earned two Purple Hearts and the Army Commendation Medal, Hagel was “one of the gang” said a former Montgomery staffer. The gang was a group of pro-America military and veterans leaders that regularly joined Sonny for breakfast in Longworth House Office Building cafeteria. Admirably, Hagel resigned his V.A. position after then Administrator Robert Nimmo referred to veterans groups as “greedy.”
Remarkable too that Wicker took his position before Hagel was nominated, before the Senate held any confirmation hearings, and before Hagel had any chance to express his views and defend his record.
The loudest opposition to Hagel comes from the ever-more-strident pro-Israel lobby.
The strongest opposition, however, may come from the defense lobby. While a proponent of a strong national defense, Hagel is an Eisenhower Republican willing to go after wasteful Pentagon spending. He has called the $525 billion defense budget, which doubled since 2001 (not counting war costs), “bloated.” As the next SecDef he would oversee what are expected to be significant cuts to military spending.
In a statement released prior to the nomination, Wicker somewhat explained his position.
“Sen. Hagel’s record of opposing Iran sanctions is troubling,” he said. “His views and positions on the Middle East and Israel are contrary to the Administration’s own stated policies, and there are concerns from members of both parties about this nomination.”
Republicans with relevant leadership experience say otherwise – former Secretary of State, Gen. Colin Powell, former National Security Advisor, Gen. Brent Snowcroft, and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge say otherwise, along with five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel. They add that foreign policy related to Israel will be dictated by Obama, not Hagel.
Judging from how he handled this, Wicker appears to be more influenced by the politics of Hagel’s nomination than its merit. As Sonny would have said, Hagel as a decorated veteran at least deserves a fair hearing.
Bill Crawford (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a syndicated columnist from Meridian.