Chuck Hagel’s nomination for secretary of defense has drawn a lot of ire for many reasons, but one criticism that should be discarded is in regard to a past comment with clear anti-gay sentiments. His recent apology aside, continued focus on the comment not only detracts from serious debate of Hagel’s qualifications for the position but also does nothing to advance gay rights.
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, has been slammed by opponents and gay rights activists for a 1997 comment he made about then-President Bill Clinton’s nomination of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg. Though he did not initially oppose the nomination, Hagel later withdrew his support on the grounds that Hormel, an “openly, aggressively gay” man, would not effectively represent the best interests of the United States abroad.
He has since backtracked, saying after the comment resurfaced a few weeks ago that his statement was “insensitive” and going on to say that he is “fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families.”
For the sake of furthering more serious debate over whether he is qualified to head the United States’ defense policy during the upcoming term, the public and its representatives need to accept his apology and move on to considerations more directly related to the responsibilities of defense secretary.
Hagel’s views on gay rights could have an impact on the implementation of the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. As a senator, he supported DADT, but has since said he would support the Obama administration in its repeal if he becomes the next secretary of defense.
Though it is true that an apology does not make everything better, especially in the political world, a poorly thought-out comment made years ago should not discount Hagel’s word on how he would treat the repeal of DADT and the treatment of gay military members, nor should it have so much bearing on whether Hagel becomes secretary.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Romania Michael Guest has weighed in on the debate in support of Hagel, and he is openly gay. He points out that Hormel accepted Hagel’s apology almost as soon as it was made, yet no one else has. Guest asks why these people should “freeze-frame” one comment made over a decade ago “even as many of us … acknowledge that America’s understanding of, and attitudes toward, sexual orientation and gender identity are changing rapidly.”
By forgiving and forgetting an intolerant comment made in the past, gay rights supporters would not be abandoning the cause — in fact, such forgiveness would be a step forward for cultural change and would refocus discourse.
Moreover, failing to evaluate Hagel on his entire record of public service would be a disservice to America and to those affected by its defense policy abroad. The most important thing to consider in choosing the next secretary of defense is deciding whether the candidate would be able to defend America at home and abroad in the most peaceful and least deadly way possible. It is safe to say that Hagel’s opinion of homosexuality is not the best measure of his competence in this regard.
None of this is to say that gay rights in the military should not be a factor in choosing a secretary of defense. Instead, it should be one of many considerations in Hagel’s upcoming Senate confirmation hearing and must not eclipse all other factors. The apology has been made and accepted by many; it’s time to proceed unimpeded by distracting commentary.
Sarah Cueva is a junior majoring in Middle East studies and political science. Her column “Homeland” runs every Wednesday.