Chuck Hagel is getting a grilling even before President Barack Obama says whether he’ll nominate the former Nebraska senator for secretary of defense.
The Republican’s past comments opposing the troop surge during the Iraq war, questioning economic sanctions against Iran and citing the influence of the “Jewish lobby” have drawn a campaign of opposition from supporters of U.S. intervention abroad and from some advocates for Israel.
“However bad Obama’s foreign policy is, Hagel is to the left of Obama,” William Kristol, who was chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, said in a Dec. 14 podcast. Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard, which calls itself a “conservative magazine and blog.”
Hagel, 66, is a leading candidate to replace the departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, according to a White House official who asked not to be identified discussing deliberations on the president’s second-term Cabinet. Some of Hagel’s opponents have called for Obama to choose an alternative such as former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy.
A Hagel nomination would benefit from the support senators usually give current and former members of the chamber. Republican Senator William Cohen of Maine was unanimously confirmed for defense secretary in 1997, and Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton of New York was confirmed for secretary of state on a 94-2 vote in 2009.
Still, colleagues say Hagel would be pressed at his confirmation hearing to provide assurances on the issues raised by his critics.
“He’s a former colleague, so he would get very fair treatment up here,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican leader, said in an interview. “But it’s an important position, and he’d have to answer some of the same hard questions any nominee would. There’s a lot going on in the world right now.”
Hagel, who declined to comment through a spokesman, is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who established a reputation as an independent thinker on foreign policy during 12 years in the Senate, where he served on the Foreign Relations Committee.
Asked today about the opposition to Hagel, White House press Secretary Jay Carney said the former senator “has been a remarkable servant to this country” and cited the two Purple Hearts he was awarded for his service in Vietnam. Carney declined to comment about potential administration appointees.
Hagel irked members of President George W. Bush’s administration and some fellow Republicans by becoming a vocal opponent of the surge of 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq in 2007. Hagel argued the administration lacked a coherent strategy and was inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment in the region.
“The surge turned out to be successful,” Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, said in an interview. “I think he was very publicly critical on a lot of policies that didn’t represent positions of our party.”
Opponents have organized an anti-Hagel campaign including blog posts and a commercial appearing on cable news channels in the Washington area. His nomination was opposed by the Washington Post in an editorial titled “Pentagon Mismatch.”
Hagel’s friends and supporters are starting to fight back against the depiction of his position on Middle East issues. They are circulating a two-page point-by-point rebuttal that portrays the criticism as overblown and based on isolated votes or comments taken out of context.
“Chuck Hagel’s knowledge, experience and relationships in this region, including Israel, outclass his critics,” Andrew Parasiliti, who served as Hagel’s foreign-policy adviser from 2001 to 2005, said in an e-mailed statement. “To tag him as ‘anti-Israel’ is simply wrong and a cheap smear.”
Some of the criticism has come from Josh Block, a spokesman for the Israel Project, an advocacy group in Washington. He faulted Hagel for votes such as one against designating the Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization.
“That record is well outside mainstream Democratic and Republican consensus,” Block said in a statement.
Hagel’s past skepticism toward the effectiveness of sanctions on Iran for its nuclear program is also being cited as a concern.
“Chuck Hagel has generally been opposed to the application of economic sanctions, not just against Iran,” Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent who is retiring, said in an interview with Judy Woodruff for the PBS NewsHour. “I’m puzzled by that.”
While Hagel has questioned the effectiveness of unilateral economic sanctions, he has supported multilateral ones, such as those the Obama administration and European allies have imposed against Iran. Supporters say Hagel voted in favor of the Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act of 1998 and the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000, among other measures.
No issue is more sensitive than the criticism that Hagel is “very anti-Israel,” as Kristol put it. Hagel’s reference to the influence of the “Jewish lobby” has been cited by critics, such as the Anti-Defamation League, that say the phrase is disturbing because active U.S. supporters of Israel include groups such as Christian evangelicals as well as Jewish organizations.
Hagel’s comment came from an interview he gave Middle East scholar Aaron David Miller for his 2008 book, “The Much Too Promised Land: America’s Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace.”
“The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” Hagel said, according to the book. “But I’m a U.S. senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”
In an interview, Miller said Hagel had used the term “Jewish lobby” interchangeably with “pro-Israeli lobby.” The author said he didn’t think the former senator was in any way “anti-Israel.”
“Hagel believes the U.S. should have a special relationship with Israel, not an exclusive relationship,” said Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state who considers Hagel a friend, said in an interview, “He has never uttered an anti-Israeli thing to me -- ever.”
Senators such as Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina say they’d want to hear Hagel explain his record and his positions in person if Obama nominates him to lead the Pentagon.
“There’s a lot of serious push-back from a wide variety of corners,” Graham said today in an interview. “I like Chuck personally, but some of the things that are being attributed to him I didn’t know about and are quite frankly stunning. So if he’s nominated, the hearing would be unusually important.”