In choosing former Sen. Chuck Hagel as secretary of Defense, has President Obama made an "in your face" appointment, as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) complains? Perhaps. Given criticism of Hagel by supporters of Israel and gay rights groups, his nomination was guaranteed to be controversial. So why did he do it? After deciding not to nominate Susan Rice as secretary of State in the face of GOP opposition, the president may have been determined not to surrender to criticism a second time.
But fascinating as the politics around the nomination may be, now that Hagel has been nominated, the only question for the Senate to decide is whether he is qualified to serve. In making that judgment, senators of both parties owe the president considerable — but not complete — deference.
We will reserve our final judgment about the Hagel nomination until after the conclusion of his Senate confirmation hearings. But there's no question that he is a plausible candidate for secretary of Defense, and the questions that have been raised about his past comments and positions so far don't strike us as disqualifying.
A former two-term Republican from Nebraska, Hagel is widely respected for his expertise in foreign and military affairs. He doesn't have the experience of managing a large organization like the Pentagon, but there is no single model for a secretary of Defense. Some, like Robert S. McNamara,had previously been executives of large corporations; others — such as current Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta — administered other government agencies. Still others have had mostly legislative experience. That was the case with William S. Cohen, the former GOP senator from Maine appointed by President Clinton.