Urvashi Vaid is Director of the Engaging Tradition Project at the Center for Gender & Sexuality Law, and the author of Irresistible Revolution: Confronting Race, Class, and the Assumptions of LGBT Politics. The following blog entry was posted on her website on January 5th:
“How do we keep our balance,” asks Tevye, in the opening number from Fiddler on the Roof, “One word. Tradition.” The chorus reinforces it in multipart harmony: ”Tradition…Tradition!”(1)
With his nomination of conservative Republican Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama resurrects the most stale of traditions to “balance” his administration – the tradition that a conservative Republican guy will do better in the defense of our country than any imaginable Democrat, and certainly better than that creature who seems anathema to the boys club that is the White House’s staff’s inner echelon – strong and independent women. In addition, the President perpetuates what historian Robert Self so brilliantly calls the “renewal of the mythology of heterosexual military manhood”(2) through the deployment of new wars launched by conservatives, and breathlessly supported by liberals.
Chuck Hagel? An anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-women’s rights, anti-environmental, pro-defense contractor Senator with a 0% rating from Human Rights Campaign and an 11% rating from the NAACP.(3) A guy whose election to the Senate from Nebraska involved the electronic ballot counting company he started tallying up the votes. Hagel made his fortune by owning and selling electronic voting systems, and the company he founded has seen its optical scanning systems be dogged by claims of faulty tabulation.(4) Hagel’s a guy who has operated with no public oversight or scrutiny as co-chair of the powerful and ultra-secret President’s Intelligence Advisory Board for these past three years. His Senate votes on issues important to service members are contradictory – he opposed repealing the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, but now says that he supports lifting the ban; he voted against allowing women service members access to abortion; he voted for the Iraq invasion but then came around to opposing the war; he opposed the nomination of long-time gay Democratic leader Jim Hormel as ambassador, but he apologized to Hormel a few weeks ago.
One of the things that might commend Hagel for his nominated position is that he may have distanced himself from the neo-conservatives who have so destructively dominated foreign policy debates in recent years. For this reason, the neo-cons despise him and have resorted to smearing him in the worst ways, leveling charges of being soft on defense because of basic policy disagreements over how the US should handle Iran and Israel. Their tactics are repugnant and debate on all positions, including those that are unpopular with certain sectors of the foreign policy establishment, should be welcomed and fully aired.(5) But Hagel is hardly a progressive in his foreign policy approach — favoring the current Administration’s love affair with drones that kill indiscriminately, with secretive special forces and unaccountable spy budgets.
Apologies seem to be a conservative specialty. And forgiveness has become the liberal lap dance to power: we excuse all manner of bad things done by a person when they had the power to actually do the right thing. So HRC President Chad Griffin made the following statement absolving Hagel of responsibility for his hostile stance towards the Clinton Administration’s appointment of James Hormel as Ambassador to Luxembourg, “Senator Hagel’s apology and his statement of support for LGBT equality is appreciated and shows just how far as a country we have come when a conservative former Senator from Nebraska can have a change of heart on LGBT issues,” HRC President Chad Griffin said in a statement. “Our community continues to add allies to our ranks and we’re proud that Senator Hagel is one of them.” (6)
Why is the President not seriously considering appointing the brilliant and extremely qualified Michele Flournoy, the former Undersecretary of Defense under Secretary Gates, from 2009-2012, who actually ran the Department of Defense policy arm for? Why not, indeed.
It would be non-traditional for the President to choose a woman as the civilian Defense Department’s Chief. Changing that tradition would certainly provide new balance to a field that could benefit from a change. The defense industry is riddled with cronyism and patronage, the armed forces are plagued with sexual harassment and violence against women, the volunteer military is paid lip service by every politician but military families struggle heroically with limited support. I’d like to see how a female Secretary would re-define the concept of defense beyond a mine’s bigger mindset. What would a Flournoy’s position be on the role of the military in an era of smaller defense budgets? What is her vision of the best way to prosecute the war in Afghanistan? What steps did she take as Undersecretary to mitigate the threats from nuclear weapons and materials proliferation around the world? Would a woman Secretary of Defense be more of a hawk to prove her “manhood” or would she tackle the challenge of achieving a radically different role for military power?
Is there something to be made of this Administration’s famous gender imbalance? Consider the many media reports that track the pay differential in the Obama White House between male and female staff. The UK Daily Mail reported In April of 2012 that “Using the 2011 annual report of White House staff salaries that was submitted to Congress, an $11,000 difference is clear between the median female employee salary and the median male employee salary.”(7) Or consider the report in the Washington Times in October of 2012: “The Washington Times earlier this year surveyed 121 White House Employees paid at least $100,000 and found that 47 were women and 74 were men. That is only slightly better than in 2003, the third year of the Bush administration, when 39 of the top 121 employees were women. When all White House employees are considered, the Obama administration’s record dims a bit further. Female employees earn a median salary of $60,000, roughly 18 percent less than men, whose median salary is $71,000.” (6)
There is little hope that any nominee for Secretary of Defense would have the foresight to articulate a role for the military that questions the exploitative use of the working people who volunteer for jobs in the armed forces as tools for the economic interests of the wealthy. Or a Secretary who questions and thwarts the colonizing ambitions of ruling parties as intent on winning elections as they are in their claims of securing the nation. That sounds like a science fiction novel. But nominating a Secretary of Defense who actually adhered to the values of the governing party is a much more modest aspiration. Chuck Hagel does not meet that limited criteria.
President Obama’s aspires to a Hegelian style of leadership – debate and third ways: a faith in thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Perhaps that is why he keeps tacking to the Right – hoping that in the process what he does will “bend towards justice.”(8) But Hagel is no Hegelian – he demonstrated none of the temperament to govern inclusively when he was in the Senate. He showed no interest in dialectical thinking, just powerful lobbyists and self-serving agendas. President Obama’s attempts at dialectical engagement with the right have only led him to debacles. Hagel promises to be another.
(1) “Tradition”, Fiddler on The Roof. Jewison, N., Stein, J., Topol, ., Crane, N., Frey, L., Picon, M., Mann, P. et.al. (2006). Beverly Hills, CA: Distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment.
(2) Robert O. Self, All In The Family: The Realignment of American Democracy Since the 1960s (Hill and Wang, 2012), p. 410.
(3) Daily Kos, “Chuck Hagel’s Dismal Sordid Voting Record,” January 5, 2013 at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/01/05/1176553/-Chuck-Hegel-s-Dismal-Sordid-Voting-Record#
(4) Victoria Collier, “How To Rig An Election: The GOP Aims To Paint The Country Red,” Harper’s, November 12, 2012, pp. 33-41.
(5) See, “J Street Supports Sen. Hagel, rebuts Charges Against Him,” December 17, 2012 at http://jstreet.org/blog/post/j-streets-supports-sen-hagel-rebuts-charges-against-him_1; see also, Matthew Duss, “What the Attacks on Hagel Tell Us,” American Prospect, December 28, 2012, at http://prospect.org/article/what-attacks-hagel-tell-us.
(6) Peter Wallsten, “Hagel retracts 1988 statement on gays; Human Rights Campaign Accepts,” Washington Post, December 21, 2012 at http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-politics/wp/2012/12/21/hagel-retracts-1998-statement-on-gays/
(7) Meghan Keneally, Women Paid Significantly Less in Obama White House than their Male Counterparts,” Daily Mail, April 12, 2012 at Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2128513/Women-paid-significantly-Obama-White-House-male-counterparts.html
(8) Susan Crabtree, “Obama’s Record on Paying Women White House Aides Not Stellar,” Washington Times, October 17, 2012 at http://www.washingtontimes.com/blog/inside-politics/2012/oct/17/obamas-record-mixed-hiring-women/
(9) To paraphrase Dr. King’s memorable phrase, itself paraphrased by Dr. King from the 19th century reformer Theodore Parker, that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” See Jamie Stiehm, “Oval Office Rug Gets History Wrong,” Washington Post, September 4, 2010, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/09/03/AR2010090305100.html