Albright Calls Anti-Israel Hagel Criticism ‘Ridiculous’

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright dismissed as “ridiculous” the accusations by Republican critics that President Barack Obama’s choice for defense secretary, Chuck Hagel, is anti-Israel.

“Senator Hagel has been somebody that has voted for help for Israel over the years, has made very clear his support for Israel, and has talked about the historic bond,” Albright said yesterday in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt” airing this weekend. “I think that is just a charge that doesn’t make any sense at all.”

Hagel, a Republican former senator from Nebraska, has come under attack from Republicans, including Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Cornyn of Texas, who serve on the Senate Armed Services Committee that will vote on the confirmation of Hagel to head the Pentagon. Hagel would be “the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history,” Graham said on Jan. 6 on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Albright, who worked with Hagel when he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and she was secretary of state and who serves with him now on Obama’s Defense Advisory Board, said she believes some detractors “just decided they weren’t going to like whomever” the president chose to lead the Pentagon.

At least one prominent Democratic lawmaker and supporter of Israel also has been lukewarm toward the nomination. New York Senator Charles Schumer said he wants to review Hagel’s positions before making a decision.

Israel Issue

Hagel’s opponents point to a reference he once made to the influence of the “Jewish lobby,” and they criticize his past positions on Iran and the militant Palestinian organization Hamas, which is viewed as a terrorist group by Israel, the U.S. and the European Union.

The Republican Jewish Coalition, a group headed by Sheldon Adelson, chairman of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. (LVS), opposes Hagel because he “was not a reliable friend of Israel while in the Senate or since.”

The Jewish advocacy group J Street, which calls itself “pro-Israel, pro-peace,” has endorsed Hagel, saying he is a defender of Israel and the victim of a smear campaign.

Albright also dismissed the notion that Iran may interpret Obama’s choice of Hagel as a softening of the U.S. position and a signal that the U.S. would let Iran acquire a nuclear weapon. Iranian state-run Press TV has praised Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran who opposed unilateral sanctions against Iran when he was a senator and has advocated negotiations over Iran’s disputed nuclear program and caution before engaging in military actions.

“The president has made very clear what his message is on Iran,” that “containment is not a policy and that all options are on the table,” Albright said, referring to Obama’s repeated insistence that the U.S. will never permit Iran to build an atomic bomb.

Iran Strike

Asked whether the U.S. might need to launch a military strike on Iran this year to stop its suspected nuclear weapons ambitions, Albright said she believes “one always needs to leave all options on the table.” At the same time, “there’s a real question as to whether a strike or a use of force would accomplish what is necessary. And when you’re choosing a tool, you need to choose one that you know will work and doesn’t have unintended consequences,” she said.

While defending Hagel as a “really, really great nominee,” Albright suggested Obama’s second-term cabinet would benefit from more diversity. Obama hasn’t yet named a woman or a minority to fill cabinet posts that are being vacated. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson have said they are stepping down. Obama has so far named four white men to fill the top positions at the Departments of State, Treasury and Defense and the CIA.

Cabinet Diversity

“The cabinet isn’t complete,” Albright said. “And I think we have to see what will happen. I do think that a cabinet benefits and a president benefits with a diversity, not just a diversity in the way people look or their gender, but also in diversity of views. And I have admired President Obama for his confidence in listening to diverse views.”

Asked if the U.S. should be taking stronger action to stop the bloodshed in Syria, where the United Nations last week raised its estimated of the death toll to at least 60,000 in the almost two-year-old-long conflict, Albright said “we’re doing the right thing there” by providing “non-lethal assistance, humanitarian support.”

While she said more support for the provisional opposition group is important, “we have to be careful about the unintended consequences of getting involved with boots on the ground.”

Afghanistan’s Future

Asked about Afghanistan, whose President Hamid Karzai has been in Washington for talks with Obama administration officials, Albright said she believes that beyond whatever decision may be made about residual troop levels after U.S. combat forces are withdrawn by the end of 2014, the White House is likely to support the government in Kabul with “non-military means.”

“It’s my sense that we’re not just going to walk out of Afghanistan, that there will be a variety of programs,” she said. “Many people are concerned about what happens to the women’s issues” to ensure that any future government doesn’t roll back rights for women, who were oppressed under the Taliban regime that was ousted by the U.S. in 2001.

Asked about the depiction of the use of torture to find Osama bin Laden in the film “Zero Dark Thirty,” which she hasn’t yet seen, Albright said that “what I understand is that torture is not the way to get information and is often counterproductive.”

“It is not something that fits with American values,” she added.

To contact the reporter on this story: Indira A.R. Lakshmanan in Washington at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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