Chuck Hagel 'issues' raised by Toomey, Casey may stem from jingoistic attitudes

Both of Pennsylvania's U.S. senators, it was reported last week, "have issues" with former Sen. Chuck Hagel, nominated to be our next secretary of defense.

The junior senator, Republican Pat Toomey, is from the Lehigh Valley and the senior senator, Democrat Bob Casey, is from the nearby Lackawanna Valley, which, in the spirit of regionalism, must mean they both are fine fellows.

Hagel is a Republican from Nebraska, which suggests only that he may be a little boring. He also has said some things and taken some positions, however, that were controversial, especially his failure to blindly support Israel and everything Israel does, no matter what.

No one could accuse Toomey or Casey of having such failures.

It was obvious that the Hagel nomination was going to be interesting, but I did not get fully engaged until this week, when The Morning Call started running a long list of national columnists on its website.

On Wednesday, a column by Evan Thomas provided details about Hagel I probably should have known, but didn't.

Hagel, Thomas wrote, once disparaged some fellow Republicans as "chickenhawks," a term coined in 1986 by The New Republic, a liberal magazine, to describe politicians and pundits who loudly call for bold military actions even though they, themselves, never served in the military.

Examples include former Vice President Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh, America's two most prominent draft-dodgers, along with many jingoistic members of Congress, including Toomey and Casey.

The part of the Thomas column that rang my bell, however, was about Hagel's hero. Thomas wrote that Hagel "takes Dwight Eisenhower, a fellow soldier, as his model."

(I have said that Eisenhower was the best president of my lifetime and that George W. Bush, who got us into a bogus war with Iraq, justified by Cheney's outright lies concerning weapons of mass destruction, was the worst president in history.)

"Hagel shares Eisenhower's strong reluctance to use military force to intervene in foreign crises," Thomas wrote. "Unlike civilians who have never served or commanded in war, Eisenhower had, and Hagel has, a good understanding of everything that can go wrong on the battlefield."

Hagel was wounded twice while serving with the Army in Vietnam, as a sergeant.

(That's another thing that makes Hagel attractive to those of us who were in the military; he would be the first former enlisted man to run the Pentagon.)

Toomey, it was reported last week, "has taken harder-line positions on Middle East foreign policy than Hagel," and has called for unilateral actions against Iran, while Hagel has balked at using U.S. military force against that nation at this stage.

Toomey was quoted as saying that's because Hagel "may not fully understand the nature of the risks we face." (Until Toomey shows us his Purple Heart awards, that is an absurd thing to say.)

Casey also has said he favors more aggressive actions to isolate Iran and has been fanatical in his support for Iran's chief foe. "I stand side by side with Israel," he said. He also has paid a cordial visit to Saudi Arabia and warmly praised that nation (which certainly had more to do with the 9/11 terrorist attacks against America than did either Iran or Iraq).

Some of the hottest dialogue about Hagel results from a poor choice of words in a 2006 interview about the way Congress slavishly kowtows to Israeli, knowing the pressure that that country's supporters in America can exert.

"The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," he said. "I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator. I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States — not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel." (Hagel probably would have generated less heat if he had referred to it as a "pro-Israel lobby.")

Meanwhile, Hagel angered some in his own party by saying the defense budget is "bloated" (a point I made last month when discussing Toomey's reluctance to cut any military spending) and, during the George W. Bush administration, by saying there was insufficient justification to invade Iraq.

"The national security of the United States is not served by isolating Iran," Hagel has said, which caused the, ahem, pro-Israel lobby and the GOP's jingoists to go nearly apoplectic. He thinks America should at least try to negotiate with the ruling regime in Iran.

That brings to mind a key element in the Iran debate, especially for those of us with long memories. The current situation in that wretched country can be traced to the way Washington (including, I admit, the Eisenhower administration) blindly propped up the monstrous Shah of Iran, rather like the blind support now given to the monstrous Saudi sheiks.

The only forces strong enough to get rid of the Shah (in 1979) were Islamic fanatics, who now are believed to be dabbling in things like nuclear weapon development.

Before Toomey, Casey and others jump on Hagel for a lack of jingoism, they might try reading a little Middle East history. Some of our problems there are our own doing, and maybe the approaches favored by Eisenhower and Hagel are worth a try.

paul.carpenter@mcall.com 610-820-6176

Paul Carpenter's commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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