Chuck Hagel Gets His Second Wind

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Tom Friedman, in this morning's New York Times, endorses Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense. Friedman finds it "disgusting" that Hagel has been "smeared as an Israel hater at best" by his detractors (some neoconservatives). But Friedman's stinging rejoinder to the anti-Hagel campaign isn't motived just by revulsion; he believes calling Hagel anti-Israel is, in addition to being sleazy, 180 degrees away from the truth:

The only thing standing between Israel and national suicide any more is America and its willingness to tell Israel the truth. But most U.S. senators, policy makers and Jews prefer to stick their heads in the sand, because confronting Israel is so unpleasant and politically dangerous. Hagel at least cares enough about Israel to be an exception.

Friedman's support isn't the only boost Hagel's candidacy has gotten in the last 24 hours. Last night the Washington Post published a letter in support of Hagel signed by four former national security advisers -- James L. Jones, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Frank Carlucci. They write:

Mr. Hagel is a man of unshakable integrity and wisdom who has served his country in the most distinguished manner in peace and war. He is a rare example of a public servant willing to rise above partisan politics to advance the interests of the United States and its friends and allies.

Note the bipartisan cast. These people held the top White House national security post in, respectively, the Obama, George H.W. Bush, Carter, and Reagan administrations. And they're not alone. Hagel has also been endorsed by a slew of former U.S. ambassadors, from both Democratic and Republican administrations, including no fewer than five who have served as ambassador to Israel.

The Friedman column and the Washington Post letter come at an important time for Hagel. Some observers were starting to think his candidacy was on life support.

To be sure, the main reason for this judgment didn't make any sense: A couple of Sunday talk shows decided to invite as their guests legislators who were guaranteed not to be supportive of Hagel, and then when they said non-supportive things, this was billed as news. (Lindsey Graham sides with neocons! Joe Lieberman sides with neocons! Chuck Schumer is non-commital! Dog bites man!) But never mind -- once the conventional wisdom hardens it hardens, and this piece of conventional wisdom was starting to gel. So the interventions by Friedman and those Democratic and Republican heavyweights were timely.

Hagel has now drawn support from liberals all across the foreign policy spectrum, from well left to center if not right of center: John Judis of The New Republic, Josh Marshall of TPM, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times, Joe Klein of Time, Tom Friedman of the New York Times, Jim Fallows of The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic (who, like Friedman, makes a pro-Israel argument for Hagel), etc. Hagel has also been embraced by many on the non-neocon right, as evinced not only by the politicos mentioned above, but by pundits ranging from paleocons to a bunch of libertarians. A few progressives are skeptical of Hagel because of his past conservative positions on issues with little bearing on foreign policy, but by and large this fight is between some neocons (plus a few reliable supporters) and everybody else.

So it's in Obama's hands. There's a lot at stake here -- not just whether McCarthyite smears will be allowed to succeed, but whether Obama, in the wake of the Susan Rice episode, will now get a reputation as someone who caves whenever he faces resistance. Some people say Obama will abandon Hagel because he's too busy dealing with the fiscal-cliff negotiations. The truth is that if he doesn't stand by Hagel he'll have a weaker hand in the fiscal cliff negotiations, because no one will take his threats seriously. "Defining moment" is an overused term, but this is a defining moment for President Obama. I'll let Andrew Sullivan have the last word.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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