Obama, Hagel, feminism and the Middle East: A progressive’s dilemma.

Obama-hagelAs a born-and-bred Progressive and long-time advocate for both Israeli-Palestinian peace and women’s rights, I’m used to having to pick my battles. My positions are to the left of pretty much every national leader for whom I’ve ever had the opportunity to vote, in Israel or the U.S. Barack Obama was the first candidate to even come close.

Whatever the President’s opinions were and may still be regarding Israel/Palestine, though, they’ve come to seem of little importance, as his actions have thus far been little but repeats of mistakes made by past Administrations.

On the question of women’s rights, however, the record is much more to my liking: the Lily Ledbetter Act, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor on the Supreme Court, health care reform, his consistent refusal to treat rape as anything less than a crime—these policy decisions and public attitudes are making America a better place for women and girls (and men and boys), right now, today.

So the record is mixed, as far as I’m concerned. Which brings us, of course, to Chuck Hagel.

From the moment that Administration sources whispered the name “Hagel” into the ether, the neocon wing of Hagel’s own party came down like a ton of bricks, spinning anti-Israel and anti-Semitic conspiracies as fast as their words could spin. It was untrue, it was ugly, and it was never really about Israel—it was and remains about the neocon vision for American power, a vision that Chuck Hagel neither shares nor respects.

As I wrote last month, I’ve long appreciated Hagel’s approach to Israel/Palestine, and his preference for diplomacy over war more broadly. As a lifelong Illinois Democrat, I don’t expect to agree with a Republican from Nebraska on much, but I’m certainly glad that we could at least agree on that.

This week I learned, however, that Hagel and I don’t agree on a whole lot else.

Far from being a feminist, in the Senate Chuck Hagel acted to prevent servicewomen from having access to abortion (even at their own expense) if they’d been raped and impregnated, and that frankly horrifies me; the Republican Party’s willing dehumanization of women generally and callousness toward rape survivors specifically is a big part of what got me so involved in Democratic get-out-the-vote efforts this fall. Like other progressives, I’m also nervous about Hagel’s positions regarding the civil rights of LGBTQ Americans, particularly (as Rachel Maddow and my colleague Sigal Samuel have noted) when the Pentagon is poised to deal with so many LGBTQ-specific issues.

But this is where I come back to the guy who hired him: Barack Obama.

I trust the President’s feminism, which I believe has been proven time and again, and while I will agree that Obama’s dedication to LGBTQ rights is less well established, I do believe that it is solid (though it should be noted that as a straight woman, I don’t have to live with the consequences of the President’s positions on these issues, and thus my awareness of them is likely not as keen as that of Americans who do). On the other hand, I am deeply concerned about Obama’s policies in the Middle East.

It is my opinion—and I cannot stress this enough: I do not pretend to know for sure—that a Defense Secretary Hagel serving under President Obama the Feminist will find that his opportunity to oppose basic human and civil rights for women and/or LGBTQ Americans will be sharply limited by his boss’s policies and positions, whereas President Obama the Failed Two-State Facilitator might have appointed a Defense Secretary Hagel precisely in order to help create movement on the ground regarding Israel and Palestine (and Iran) that will lead to real, desperately-needed change in the region.

Do I love the pick? No, and I love it even less now that I know more about Hagel’s record. But I still like Hagel better than Michele Flourney, for reasons that speak very directly to the Defense Secretary’s primary mission, and I do think that as an official in the Obama White House, there’s greater potential for him to do good, than harm.

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t hold the President’s feet to the fire on these issues, because we should—indeed, I hope the Senate questions Hagel very closely at his confirmation hearings. In a democracy, it’s the job of citizens and our elected officials to insist that government reflect our highest values, and I’m pretty sure that “equality for all” is top of the American list.

And of course, my cautious optimism might be proven wrong. But for the time being, I remain an American-Israeli progressive feminist peacenik who is cautiously optimistic about Chuck Hagel. So it goes.

Crossposted from Open Zion/The Daily Beast.



  1. It’s not always easy to divine the President’s motives in the choices he makes. Both Liberals & Conservatives tend to disagree, which leads me to believe that this is his personal litmus test for the efficacy of a pick. Given the importance of the Secretary of Defense position in regards to foreign policy, Chuck Hagel makes perfect sense, because he definitely brings heath from both sides of the room.

    I think what ultimately commends him to me — knowing full well President Obama will be his boss and therefore reign in any excesses — is that he is a Vietnam War vet and perhaps more in tune with the responsibility the Defense Department has toward its soldiers. I think he will be a strong voice for keeping us out of situations that certain quarters of the country would have us dive into, namely attacking Iran. As for the rest, like you Emily, I will take it under advisement and cross my fingers.

    • Neocortex

       /  January 12, 2013

      he is a Vietnam War vet and perhaps more in tune with the responsibility the Defense Department has toward its soldiers.

      Not just that, but he was enlisted, not an officer like a lot of high-level government types. I’ve heard that he would be the first SecDef to have been an enlisted servicemember, though I haven’t verified that.

  2. Darth Thulhu

     /  January 11, 2013

    So what you’re saying is, you are fiercely and utterly opposed to nominating Chuck Hagel for Secretary of Health and Human Services? : )

    Thankfully for all involved, he is instead being nominated to a position with a suite of responsibilities upon which you two seem to more broadly agree upon.

  3. Also worth noting: if Hagel tries to go off the reservation and visit animus upon women or gay people, he will be promptly fired. Barack Obama is the only person behind Hagel, and he would pay no price for dumping him under such circumstances. As someone who was elected to the United States Senate twice, I trust Hagel is politically sophisticated enough to grok the situation: his job really does depend on making Obama look good, and since all Republicans hate him anyway, there’s nothing to be gained by being dickish.

  4. liberal

     /  January 11, 2013

    “This week I learned, however, that Hagel and I don’t agree on a whole lot else.”

    Yeah…at some blog someone commented about Hagel being one of the few remaining moderate Republicans, and I replied that AFAICT that’s not an accurate characterization.

    • Neocortex

       /  January 12, 2013

      Much as happened with McCain, people have moderation and heterodoxy confused. The former means that you’re generally pretty centrist. The latter means that you might mostly adhere to a particular ideology, even quite strongly so, but that there are issues on which you break with that ideology (perhaps just as strongly so). For some reason people don’t even seem to understand the concept of the latter.

      Some people are calling Hagel a paleocon, but from the info that I’ve found he doesn’t seem to be – he’s a pretty strong supporter of the UN, for instance.

  5. RosiesDad

     /  January 13, 2013

    I appreciate Hagel as an anti-neocon and for his support of Obama over McCain and Bob Kerrey over Deb Fischer.

    The DoD needs to be greatly downsized and he is someone who ought to be able to oversee it.

    The Middle East needs a new approach and as an American Jew who would also like to see peace, administration officials who won’t coddle Bibi and the Israeli right work for me; they are their own worst enemies and need to face that fact.

    As to the rest of it, I agree with you and other commenters–Hagel would not be my choice for HHS but that’s not where he is going, his earlier views on gays and abortion may have “evolved” but even if they haven’t, his boss’s values in these areas are the ones that will inform policy.