I always sort of liked Chuck Hagel when he was in the Senate. While I didn’t know much about him or follow his career closely, I knew he was a highly-decorated Vietnam combat veteran with a maveric streak who spoke plainly and passionately. So, I have been watching with great interest the swirl surrounding President Obama’s nomination of this former Nebraska Republican Senator to be the next Secretary of Defense, replacing Leon Panetta. A critical element of the country’s national security team, the Defense Secretary is sixth in line to the presidency (remember your 7th grade civics class) and Obama became friendly with Hagel during his time in the U.S. Senate.
I have learned that he was a successful businessman and was generally considered a mainstream Republican with an 84 percent rating from the American Conservative Union, but he was also known to buck the Party line at times. He has made some controversial statements in important areas and taken positions outside the norm in either party in key foreign policy and defense matters. This will lead to a contentious confirmation hearing in the Senate and there has been resistance to his nomination coming from mostly Republicans but also some Democrats.
Specifically, he will need to answer tough questions on his statements regarding the influence of Israel and what he referred to as “The Jewish lobby”– as a strong supporter of Israel, I will be interested in his clarifications. He will need to better describe his position on Iran and how we ought to deal with this rogue regime; comments he has made that seem to be at odds with President Obama regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program and our willingness to keep even military options on the table to keep Iran nuke-free. His openness to deeper cuts in defense spending compared to his predecessors (and the president for that matter) will also be of interest to more hawkish Senators. Also, he will be grilled by Democratic Senators on statements he has made which were taken as insensitive to the LGBT community when he described a Clinton nominee as “openly, aggressively gay.” The next Pentagon Chief will have to deal with a variety of looming strategic national security challenges and chaos in several parts of the globe. He will need to preside over a review of the DoD’s organization and significant budget cuts. Tough questions are not only anticipated, they are appropriate.
So what does a potential Secretary Hagel mean to the Hispanic community? As a veteran, a small business owner doing business with the Defense Department and as someone who is very interested in our relationship with Latin America, I know the next Defense Secretary has the potential for a positive impact on a number of fronts. While Hispanics have served admirably in all of our wars including the revolutionary war and are one of the most decorated per capita in our military history, we remain underrepresented in the Pentagon. Hagel can address this disparity and do more to recognize the contributions of Latino service members. For Hispanic-owned businesses, more can be done to meet and exceed the DoD’s current 5% goal for prime contract for small disadvantaged businesses. Lastly, blame can be placed at the feet of administrations of both parties for the inadequate attention placed on Latin America. A region increasingly important to our strategic military interests, we have seen a troubling increase in despotic regimes, anti-American propaganda, and increases in influence by adversaries like China and Iran. The next Secretary of Defense has the opportunity to shine more light on the need to pay much more attention to Latin America.
But does Chuck Hagel know or care about the Latino community? There is reason to be hopeful. In conversations with people who knew Senator Hagel in Nebraska, he was sincere and genuine about engaging and supporting Latinos in his state. According to them, whether it was his record on veterans’ issues, support for immigration reform or support for minority-owned businesses, Hagel was always very helpful and very understanding of our community needs in Nebraska. I will watch the hearing closely but will keep an open mind, knowing that he will likely be confirmed, but hopeful that he will serve the best interests of our country, our security and our community.
Danny Vargas, President of marketing consulting firm VARCom Solutions and Co-Chair for the campaign Juntos con Romney in Virginia. Former Commissioner, National Museum of the American Latino Commission, Former National Chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly, regular MSNBC contributor, U.S. Air Force veteran raised in NYC.