Whether Chuck Hagel and John Brennan are the ideal men to lead the Pentagon and CIA remains to be seen. We need the exercise of a through vetting in Senate confirmation hearings, and certainly an examination of the nominees' past statements and actions is warranted. But the objections raised about Mr. Hagel so far, and to a lesser extent, Mr. Brennan, sound a lot more like an attempt to score political points than an effort to get at the key questions that will face the leaders of two of the nation's most crucial agencies.
Mr. Hagel's views on any number of topics from gay rights to the Middle East and foreign policy are fair game, but what's been raised so far seems hardly the stuff of disqualification. Rather, it looks a great deal like Republicans have never forgiven one of their own, a two-term conservative GOP senator from Nebraska, for criticizing the Iraq War, declining to back Sen. John McCain in his White House bid in 2008 and for calling out the party's presidential candidates for their outrageously hawkish views on Iran last year. Fellow conservatives see Mr. Hagel not as an independent-minded truth-teller but as a turncoat to the Republican Party.
Others have expressed concern about something offensive the senator said a decade ago in opposing an openly gay nominee for ambassador. He apologized for that comment. What ought to concern Democrats more than that episode is his commitment to the full dismantling of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy in the military. Not only has Mr. Obama shown his own commitment toward the goal of ending discrimination against gays serving in the military — and bear in mind, he's the one in charge here — but he has expressed confidence in his nominee's devotion, too.
Any review of Mr. Hagel's credentials ought to also consider what he brings to the table as a decorated Vietnam veteran willing to challenge conventional authority and as someone who already has had a close relationship with Mr. Obama from their days in the U.S. Senate. The senator has been a critic of the Pentagon and shown a reluctance to pull the trigger on military intervention, two views the American people ought to be glad to hear will be better represented at cabinet meetings.
Instead of making some off-hand remark Mr. Hagel may have made long ago about the "Jewish lobby" the centerpiece of confirmation deliberations, senators should be exploring his thoughts about the future of the nation's military in the 21st century and the potential for cost-savings and down-sizing, not to mention the time table for pulling troops out of Afghanistan. The foreign policy buck stops at the desk of the president, not his defense secretary, but devising strategies for the military's future? That starts at the Pentagon.
Mr. Brennan has probably made some mistakes in the past, too, and that includes his apparent acceptance of harsh interrogation techniques of suspected terrorists during the Bush administration. But he also served as Mr. Obama's top advisor on counter-terrorism in the first term. After 25 years at the CIA, Mr. Brennan's expertise is unquestioned, and he has a close working relationship with the president. He's also on record (as of 2008) as opposed to waterboarding and other coercive tactics. On balance, that sounds pretty appealing. That said, we also need to hear from him about his views on the morality and legality of drone warfare, which has expanded markedly under Mr. Obama, and on the nation's detention policy for terrorism suspects.
We offer no blanket endorsement of either man, but it's clear that some in Washington would just like to see a Obama nominee go down in flames. That kind of partisan gamesmanship helps explain the inflammatory GOP rhetoric that caused U.S. ambassador Susan Rice to lose out on the secretary of state post. What we need is a focus on the Senate's supposed purpose — making sure a nominee is qualified for the position.
Senators should remember that the public has grown tired of such political maneuvering and likely welcomes Mr. Obama's bipartisan gesture in nominating Mr. Hagel. That his appointment may upset some in Congress is not sufficient cause for the president to back down, again.