In a nomination that was as much about President Obama thumbing his nose at Senate opponents of a Susan Rice nomination as it was about putting on a “bipartisan” display, former Nebraska GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel was nominated for Defense secretary today.
With retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta quipping that he was looking forward “dealing with a different set of nuts” back on his California walnut farm, Obama proposed turning the reins of the Pentagon over to “the leader that our troops deserve.”
And, knowingly, the president turned up the spigot of controversy — adding to the day’s nominations a tip to counterterrorism adviser John Brennan as new head of the CIA.
Brennan has a track record of comments that have given conservatives and national security hawks pause — including referring to jihad as legitimate holy struggle — and questions still swirl about his role in Benghazi, but his nomination didn’t evoke the reaction Hagel’s did. With multiple nominations to juggle — and an almost assured confirmation for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) at the State Department — Republicans have zeroed in on the battle they wish to fight: against a senator who used to serve in their ranks.
“Chuck Hagel’s leadership of our military would be historic. He’d be the first person of enlisted rank to serve as secretary of Defense, one of the few secretaries who have been wounded in war, and the first Vietnam veteran to lead the department. As I saw during our visits together to Afghanistan and Iraq, in Chuck Hagel our troops see a decorated combat veteran of character and strength. They see one of their own,” Obama said in the East Room announcement.
“Chuck represents the bipartisan tradition that we need more of in Washington. For his independence and commitment to consensus, he’s earned the respect of national security and military leaders, Republicans and Democrats — including me,” he added. “In the Senate, I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind — even if it wasn’t popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom.”
The opposition to a Hagel nomination began even before Obama stepped up to the podium today. But once it was official, the voices from the GOP grew louder and more resolute.
“I’ll be a no vote on the Armed Services Committee and on the floor,” Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) said. “Given Chuck Hagel’s statements and actions on a nuclear Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, I think his confirmation would send exactly the wrong message to our allies and enemies alike.”
“Israel, our strongest ally in the region, is dealing with a lot of threat and uncertainty right now; Hagel would make that even worse,” Vitter said.
“I am surprised and disappointed President Obama has chosen to move forward with Senator Hagel’s nomination given the significant concerns that both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have expressed about Senator Hagel’s positions and past votes on issues regarding some of our closest allies and most pressing national security threats,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio).
“I believe Senator Hagel should get a fair look and an opportunity to defend his record, his past comments, and his current beliefs, but I don’t understand why the administration is looking to pick yet another political fight instead of working with Congress to solve some of the very real problems we face as a country,” Portman added.
GOP Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) told CNN it was “premature” to talk about putting a hold on Hagel’s nomination just yet.
“We have a number of people, including my colleague, Dan Coats, and others who I know you’ve heard from just recently, who’ve expressed their concerns, John McCain, Lindsey Graham and others,” Cornyn said. “There have been a number of Democrats who privately have said that they have concerns and are unwilling to commit to his confirmation.”
“So there’s going to be a lot happen between now and the hearing, and after the hearing.”
One of those skeptical pro-Israel, tough-on-Iran Democrats said Hagel needs to answer some key questions.
“I have concerns based on positions he has taken and statements he has made on a variety of topics,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who has asked for a one-on-one meeting with Hagel. “Despite my reservations, I will not prejudge his nomination but will give him ample opportunity to explain himself and current thinking on the future state and scope of our military, relationships with our allies, including Israel, and how he believes we should address challenges to our national security like Iran.”
And, like Obama’s failed attempt to nominate UN Ambassador Rice for secretary of State, the Hagel opposition didn’t just come from the chamber that will vote on the nomination, either.
“Senator Hagel’s incendiary views of Israel are only the tip of the iceberg. On Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Iran and defense spending, Hagel’s reported views call into question his judgment about the most important matters facing our national security,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) said in a lengthy statement. “Taken together, Hagel’s views represent a call for a broad retreat from the preeminent role America has played, and must continue to play, in the world during a period of profound tumult and instability.”
“Hagel opted for political expediency in opposing the surge in Iraq, and supported a retreat that would have ceded victory to al Qaeda and Iran. The nomination of a man known primarily for opposing sanctions and military action against Iran strongly suggests that all options are not on the table. Hagel’s nomination telegraphs weakness in the Middle East and defeatism in Afghanistan, where our Afghan partners will surely be concerned, and our Taliban and Iranian adversaries will surely be emboldened,” Cantor added.”
Anti-Defamation League director Abe Foxman said he respects Obama’s prerogative to pick his cabinet, but Hagel has to address the myriad concerns surrounding his positions.
“I particularly hope Senator Hagel will clarify and explain his comments about the ‘Jewish Lobby’ that were hurtful to many in the Jewish community,” Foxman said.
“There are serious concerns about Hagel’s commitments to the efficacy of sanctions and a credible military option against Iran, on pressing the European Union to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, on sustaining the U.S. policy on the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza, on the special nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship and Israel’s quest for peace and security, and on gay rights,” American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris said.
“…AJC has shared our concerns with members of the U.S. Senate, who have the responsibility to ask the probing questions about Hagel’s record and vision.”
Israel opponents tried to pose the question as a choice between the Israel lobby — which, as noted by Foxman, Hagel has been criticized for derisively referring to before — or the former Nebraska senator.
“Senator Hagel will face a difficult and at times a deliberately embarrassing questioning, but WE THE PEOPLE, will not let that happen,” wrote Mohamed Khodr at the Sabbah Report. “These elected traitors will hear from America, all of America, that we as their employers demand they work for our interests and not for Israel or AIPAC.”
The Emergency Committee for Israel launched ChuckHagel.com to detail disturbing Hagel views. J Street turned its site into a pro-Hagel portal.
“Hagel has demonstrated that he is committed to Israel’s security and its future as a democratic state with a Jewish majority living in peace with its neighbors,” J Street said in a statement. “…The fact that Hagel has insisted on independent thinking, weighing each issue on its merits instead of blindly following along with the herd, we regard as an asset.”
Absent from reaction one way or the other was Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), whose foreign policy isolationism views aren’t too remote from Hagel’s.
Tea Party colleague Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), though, had cautiously kinder words for the nominee than some others in his party.
“I have concerns based on positions he has taken and statements he has made on a variety of topics,” Lee said. “Despite my reservations, I will not prejudge his nomination but will give him ample opportunity to explain himself and current thinking on the future state and scope of our military, relationships with our allies, including Israel, and how he believes we should address challenges to our national security like Iran.”
With the controversial nomination sandwiched between two intense negotiating periods with congressional Republicans — over the Bush tax cuts, and now over spending cuts and the debt ceiling — White House press secretary Jay Carney brushed off the need for Obama to address lawmakers’ concerns about his nominee.
“I think that Senator Hagel’s record on those issues and so many others demonstrate that he is in sync with the president’s policies,” Carney said of Israel and Iran — both unmentioned by the president today.