Hagel Critics' Disingenuous Anti-Gay Charge

By Berin Szoka

Foreign policy neoconservatives are circling around Chuck Hagel. They’re desperate to block the former Nebraska senator from becoming secretary of Defense because, as a Republican, he could help revive the traditional GOP foreign policy realism shattered by 9/11. They insist the Vietnam vet with two Purple Hearts would be weak on Iran, abandon Israel and gut our military. 

Hagel's opponents need at least five Democratic senators' nay votes, plus one for every Republican who supports him. So they’re spinning a narrative of united Republican opposition, while also playing to the Left. That requires making the fight seem broader than foreign policy.  

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Enter the Log Cabin Republicans. The nation's largest gay conservative group ran a full-page New York Times ad just before New Year's calling Hagel "Wrong on Gay Rights. Wrong on Iran. Wrong on Israel." The ad alludes to comments Hagel made in 1998 about President Clinton's nomination of the nation's first openly gay ambassador (to Luxembourg). Hagel said philanthropist James Hormel's being "openly, aggressively gay" would be an "inhibiting factor" to "do an effective job." (Hagel had already voted for Hormel in committee.)

Shortly before Christmas, in response to gay advocates, Hagel publicly apologized for his comments -- and added that he "fully supports" openly gay servicemembers. The nation's largest gay rights group, the Human Rights Campaign, and largest gay servicemembers’ group, Outserve, applauded Hagel's apology -- as did Hormel himself, even endorsing his nomination. Yet in a second full-page ad run Tuesday in the Washington Post, Log Cabin calls Hagel’s apology “Too Little, Too Late.”

Keeping the controversy over Hagel's comments alive gives some Democrats a convenient excuse for opposing Hagel: Can he be trusted to implement repeal of "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?" That reform is one of the few wins progressives can claim from a president they see as disappointingly "center-right." So it's the perfect wedge issue for attacking Hagel's left flank while rallying conservatives -- provided it comes from the right messenger: gay Republicans.

Craven as that is, it's even more of a stretch for Log Cabin, which hasn’t exactly been tough on gay rights. Mitt Romney opposed DADT repeal, marriage equality, employment non-discrimination and essentially every other gay issue Log Cabin stands for -- yet Log Cabin still endorsed him, albeit in a “qualified” way. Now they oppose Hagel, who's said he's "fully supportive of 'open service' and committed to LGBT military families" -- the only gay issues a secretary of Defense actually handles. That bizarre double standard will frustrate what should be Log Cabin’s top goal: encouraging Republicans to improve on gay rights -- precisely as Hagel's done.

Log Cabin's Romney endorsement declared that "building a stronger, more inclusive Republican Party requires Republicans reaching out to Republicans." Apparently, that tolerance doesn't extend to Republicans who believe that, in foreign policy, discretion is the better part of valor. That's why I've quit Log Cabin, an organization I've been involved with for a decade and whose annual D.C. holiday party my partner and I used to host.

In mid-December, Log Cabin Executive Director Clark Cooper, speaking only for himself as a veteran, praised Hagel as a "combat veteran who has hands-on experience in the field." So what changed? Why should the group ever presume to speak for all gay Republicans on an issue that deeply divides us? 

And who funded these two ads, anyway? Cooper has said Log Cabin "raised funds from multiple donors in order to pay for [the Times ad]" but refused to identify them or say whether they were "first-time" donors -- or even gay.

Wealthy neoconservatives have already given millions to candidates and organizations that demand a "robust" role for the U.S. military in defending, and spreading, democracy. They've also funded vicious attacks on those who question whether these lofty goals are realistic or would actually backfire. Defense contractors have an even bigger stake in keeping the cash flowing at the Pentagon, the world's biggest pork-barrel project. Spending $100,000-200,000 on full-page ads in two of the nation's top papers is a small price to pay if it helps prevent Americans from seriously debating whether playing the world’s policeman is worth the trillions of dollars or tens of thousands of American lives our adventurism has already cost.  

Until the Pentagon is led by someone who believes we should fight only when truly necessary to protect vital national interests, our soldiers -- straight and gay -- will keep dying in conflicts we cannot win and wars that are not our own. "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" shouldn't become a diversion to further the neocons' policy of "Don't Question, Don't Think."

Until the GOP is led by those who, like Hagel, call for "more caution, realism and a bit more humility" about America's ability to democratize the world, Republicans will keep losing elections. Even President Bush campaigned on a "humble" foreign policy against Clinton's nation-building -- before changing course in the confusion after 9/11. Romney ran on a heavily neocon foreign policy -- and lost. 

Until Log Cabin -- and GOP groups more generally -- is led by someone who respects disagreements of principle on the Right, they’ll never succeed in building a more inclusive party. If they don't focus on issues gay conservatives can agree on, they'll remain -- like so many other GOP establishment groups today -- just another pawn of ideologues who would sacrifice everything, including gay rights and gay soldiers, on the altar of "national greatness."

Berin Szoka, a technology policy analyst based in Washington, was a D.C. delegate candidate for the 2008 GOP national convention, and was, until recently, an active member of the D.C. Log Cabin Republicans.  

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