Skip to main content

Don't punish Obama for picking a maverick

By Jeremy Ben-Ami, Special to CNN
updated 11:37 AM EST, Tue January 15, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jeremy Ben-Ami: Hagel's fate will show whether a president can really pick his own Cabinet
  • He says zealots representing narrow interests want to make that determination
  • Ben-Ami: Hagel is supremely qualified, but he made enemies by disagreeing with his party
  • That independence and political courage are the reasons he should be confirmed, he says

Editor's note: Jeremy Ben-Ami is president of J Street, a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocacy organization.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama's nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense has turned into one of those key moments in U.S. politics that could reverberate for decades. It may determine whether a president still has the right to nominate the Cabinet of his choice or whether political zealots representing a variety of narrow interests get to decide who can and cannot serve.

By all rational criteria, Hagel is supremely qualified to head up the Pentagon. His own service in Vietnam gives him a unique perspective -- he would be the first enlisted man to head the Defense Department.

His two terms in the Senate, during which he was deeply involved in foreign and security policy, have made him familiar with the issues he will need to tackle. He knows many key foreign leaders. And his record of defying his own party to oppose the U.S. military occupation of Iraq means he has the independence and personal courage necessary to advise the president in moments of crisis.

Jeremy Ben-Ami
Jeremy Ben-Ami

Against this, what do his critics offer?

It comes down to some misspoken words, some taken out of context, from the late 1990s, and his failure to sign a few Senate statements on Iran and Israel -- for each of which he has offered a rational explanation.

Hagel's record of support of Israel is clear and unambiguous and is reflected in his voting record on military aid and in his writings and speeches. But this is evidently not enough to satisfy some critics who equate support of Israel to unquestioning backing for almost every action taken by the Israeli government.

However, what really scares Hagel's neoconservative opponents, who brought us the war in Iraq and would like to sell us a military attack against Iran, is his clear record of favoring diplomatic engagement and other nonviolent means over military action. That doesn't mean Hagel is a pacifist. It means he is a realist who knows the costs of military intervention and needs to be convinced that no other option exists before endorsing the use of force.

Fleischer: Hagel's wrong on why U.S. supports Israel

McCain's 'serious concerns' about Hagel
Hagel tapped for Defense Secretary

Interest groups might legitimately critique any nominee's record in the light of their issues. But senators have a higher responsibility -- not to decide whether they personally agree with every position a nominee has taken but to rule on whether the president's choice is qualified to serve. After all, the president has just won an election and has a mandate from the people to lead.

The Constitution lays it out in simple words: The president "shall nominate, and by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, shall appoint ambassadors, other public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court and all other officers of the United States..."

The Hagel controversy puts this proposition to the test. If he is rejected, the message to future public servants will be clear -- never rock the boat, always go along with the majority, never stake out an independent position, never take a principled stand and above all, never annoy a powerful enemy.

Some influential lobbies in Congress work mostly through fear. To those who support them without question by signing all their letters and voting on all their legislation, they offer the promise of campaign money and political cover; in other words, a quiet life. But to those who dare to dissent, they offer the threat of political retribution, now and for the rest of a politician's life.

Opinion: Hagel is a friend to Israel

Hagel has dared to annoy a lot of people and that has made him some powerful enemies. But his independence and political courage are the very reasons he should be confirmed, speedily and decisively, by the Senate.

Confirming Hagel will send the message we want politicians to stand up for what they believe. Rejecting him will send the message that to succeed in politics in America today, you have to check your brain and your conscience at the door.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions in this commentary are solely those of Jeremy Ben-Ami.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 9:02 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT