The White House has begun to leak indications that it won’t go to the mat for Chuck Hagel. On Sunday, National Journal reported that Obama is considering other candidates for the secretary of defense post, which of course has been true from the outset. Still it’s a sign Obama may be contemplating a reprise of the Susan Rice play–hang his preferred nominee out to be attacked, and see what happens. If he retreats on Hagel, he would be 0 for 2, and fuel some not very complimentary perceptions about the nature of his presidency.

I have no idea whether Hagel would be confirmed, or if he would be a good secretary of defense. He has a realistic sense of the limits of American power, and opposed the Iraq war early on, which highly recommends him. He has been vociferously attacked by the right wing of the Israel lobby. He has garnered support from some surprising sources, for surprising reasons. The most surprising was Jeffrey Goldberg, a hawkish center-right  Zionist whose reporting frequently serves as an echo chamber for Netanyahu’s views on a  war on Iran. But Goldberg (even Goldberg, I should say) feels that Israel is going too far with building settlements, making a two state solution impossible. He writes:

Maybe, at this point, what we need are American officials who will speak with disconcerting bluntness to Israel about the choices it is making. If the Jewish Home party becomes a key part of Netanyahu’s right-wing ruling coalition, you can be assured that there will not compromise coming in the forseeable future (it’s almost impossible to forsee compromise now.) Maybe the time has come to redefine the term “pro-Israel” to include, in addition to providing support against Iran (a noble cause); help with the Iron Dome system (also a noble cause); and support to maintain Israel’s qualitiative military edge (ditto), the straightest of straight talk about Israel’s self-destructive policies on the West Bank. Maybe Hagel, who is not bound to old models, could be useful in this regard.

I’m no fan of Goldberg, and have often regarded his support for a two-state Israel-Palestine solution as nominal at best; so this position–that confirmation of a tough-love cabinet officer disliked by the Israel lobby would be good for Israel–I would designate as the most surprising thing I’ve read all year.

Importantly, the confirmation process would be a major ideological and even educational event, even if the lobby managed to block Hagel. Jeremiah Haber writes:

If the nomination goes through, then Hagel could be facing tough confirmation hearings. I don’t think Obama would lose this one,  but even if he did, the confirmation hearings would bring to the center some of the major concerns of the Obama administration — the criticism of the settlements while at the same backing a democratic Israel, the disinclination to act unilaterally in the Mideast, the desire to eliminate waste at the Pentagon. Win or lose, this would be a powerful teaching moment for the rest of the country. And it could help revitalize the grand tradition of Republican realism that was sidelined when the neocons took over the party and got us into mess after mess.

My guess is Obama will choose fairly soon. The so-called gay opposition to Hagel has evaporated, put to rest by the Senator’s apology to former ambassador James Hormel, the telling confirmation from Steve Clemons among others that Hagel’s view of gays in the military has changed substantially since the 1990s. That was largely a red herring anyway, though it was useful to Hagel’s Israel lobby opponents to be able claim the opposition to the nomination wasn’t all about Israel.

It’s really at this point about Obama more than Hagel, his backbone, his readiness to fight when he meets opposition. A replay of the Chas Freeman debacle of the last administration on a far larger scale would signal that Obama will likely capitulate to Netanyahu in his second term, much as he did in the first. The President is in danger of becoming known as a figure who won’t put up a fight when facing opposition, someone who hoards political capital–saving it up for what is not exactly clear.

If Obama does retreat, Hagel is likely to remain  as a political force of some consequence regardless. He is a politician of both substance and courage; more than any figure in recent memory, he has galvanized the usually quiescent foreign policy realist community inside the Beltway. The realists should, by right, be a part of the Obama administration– but if not, they are likely to make their newly recovered voices heard nonetheless.