President Barack Obama sees in Chuck Hagel a new Pentagon chief who, as a decorated Vietnam War veteran, can stand up to generals at a tight budgetary time and shares his doubts about open-ended military commitments.
Now, Hagel, 66, faces a Senate confirmation fight because the outspoken former Republican senator often broke with his party on foreign policy, from his opposition to the American troop surge in Iraq to his past comments on the influence of the “Jewish lobby” in Washington.
“Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve,” Obama said today in an announcement combining his choices of Hagel for the Pentagon and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to head the Central Intelligence Agency.
Obama picked Hagel to succeed retiring Defense Secretary Leon Panetta after several weeks of warnings from Republicans such as Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee that will hold a confirmation hearing on the nominee.
“This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel,” Graham said on CNN’s “State of the Union” yesterday. “Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking on most issues regarding foreign policy.”
Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican leader, has said he would oppose Hagel, and some Democratic allies of the president, such as Senator Charles Schumer of New York, have said they would have to evaluate the nomination once it was made.
Opponents cite Hagel’s past opposition to unilateral economic sanctions against Iran -- the Obama administration has sought international support for U.S. sanctions now in effect -- and some of his votes, such as one in 2007 opposing designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization.
“The distortions about my record have been astonishing,” Hagel said in an interview today with the Lincoln Journal Star in his home state of Nebraska. He said there is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli, not one vote that matters that hurt Israel. I didn’t sign on to certain resolutions and letters because they were counter-productive and didn’t solve a problem.”
The criticism crystallized over an interview for a 2008 book in which Hagel told Mideast scholar Aaron David Miller that “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. But I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”
Hagel had used the term “Jewish lobby” interchangeably with “pro-Israeli lobby,” Miller, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington, said in an interview. The author said he didn’t think the former senator was in any way “anti-Israel.”
Andrew Parasiliti, who served as Hagel’s foreign policy adviser from 2001 to 2005, calls the criticism unwarranted.
“Chuck Hagel’s knowledge, experience, and relationships in this region, including Israel, outclass his critics,” Parasiliti said in an e-mail. “To tag him as ‘anti-Israel’ is simply wrong and a cheap smear.”
Still, Morris Amitay, founder of the pro-Israel Washington Political Action Committee and former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said that if he were a senator, he wouldn’t vote to confirm Hagel.
“It’s a poor choice not only regarding Israel, but it’s a poor choice for national security,” Amitay said. “Someone who basically has been fairly soft on strengthening Iran sanctions and who seems to feel there can be major cuts in the defense budget is a very poor choice for the United States.”
Israeli Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who was in Washington for a visit with administration officials, declined to comment today on Obama’s choice for defense secretary, saying “it is not our custom to interfere in democratic procedures in other democracies.”
In choosing a Republican as defense secretary, Obama is following in the path of Democratic President Bill Clinton, who picked Republican Senator William Cohen of Maine for the job in his second term. Through much of Obama’s first term, he kept George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, in the job.
If Hagel wins confirmation, he will face challenges such as the increasing threat of cyber warfare, readying military contingency plans for the volatile Middle East and jockeying with China for naval influence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Hagel would “be the first person of enlisted rank to serve as secretary of defense, one of the few secretaries who’ve been wounded in war, and the first Vietnam veteran to lead the department,” Obama said at the White House today.
The combat veteran is uniquely equipped to take on four-star generals over how fast to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and how to cut forces and weapons in a time of restricted defense spending, according to friends such as Richard Armitage.
“He’s got proven guts,” Armitage, who was deputy secretary of state in the Bush administration, said in an interview before the appointment. “He doesn’t care if people like him or not. He knows who he is.”
Hagel, whose father died when he was 16, dropped out of college and worked as a radio disc jockey before going to serve in Vietnam with his brother Tom. When their armored personnel carrier hit a mine in 1968, Chuck, suffering burns to his body, dragged his brother from the vehicle to safety.
“Chuck bears the scars and the shrapnel from battles he fought in our name,” Obama said today.
Hagel came back from the war with two Purple Hearts and a conviction that, as he put it in a 2002 interview, “War is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, call upon to settle a dispute.”
“The horror of it, the pain of it, the suffering of it -- people just don’t understand it unless they’ve been through it,” Hagel said in the interview for the Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center. “There’s no glory, only suffering in war.”
After working his way through the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Hagel got a job as a congressional aide and then as a lobbyist for the Firestone Tire & Rubber Co. before becoming deputy administrator of the Veterans’ Administration in President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
Hagel made his fortune as a pioneer in the fledgling mobile-phone business. He co-founded Vanguard Cellular Systems Inc., which was later acquired by AT&T Corp.
His net worth was $2.4 million to $10.9 million in 2009, the year he left the Senate, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lawmakers’ financial disclosure forms.
During 12 years in the Senate, Hagel established his reputation as an independent thinker on foreign policy, sometimes irking colleagues along the way.
A turning point came in 2007, when Hagel said he’d had enough when Bush proposed a surge of 30,000 troops to bolster the U.S. combat effort in Iraq in 2007.
“Maybe I have no political future,” the Nebraska Republican, who broke with his party to co-sponsor a resolution opposing the troop surge, said at a Senate hearing. “I don’t care about that. But I don’t ever want to look back and have the regret that I didn’t have the courage and I didn’t do what I could to at least project something.”
The resolution never came to a Senate vote, and the additional troops were deployed. Hagel’s stance alienated some fellow Republicans who never forgave him, while giving him an ally in then-Senator Barack Obama, a Democratic freshman who won election opposing the Iraq war. The two developed a camaraderie traveling together to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008.
Hagel declined to endorse Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, a longtime friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, for president over Obama in 2008.
A campaign aimed at heading off Hagel’s nomination has been led by William Kristol, who called the prospect “really appalling” in a Dec. 14 podcast for the Weekly Standard.
“However bad Obama’s foreign policy is, Hagel is to the left of Obama,” said Kristol, the Weekly Standard’s editor, who served as chief of staff for Republican Vice President Dan Quayle.
The Emergency Committee for Israel, headed by Kristol and Gary Bauer, a former Reagan administration official and leader of the group American Values, has run a commercial on cable news channels in the Washington area opposing Hagel. The 30-second spot, called “Not an Option,” cites Hagel’s votes against Iran sanctions and a comment questioning the feasibility of a military strike on Iran.
Zalman Shoval, a former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. who served under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said in a telephone interview that Israel “shall certainly look forward to close cooperation with the Defense Department as there was in the past, even if from time to time there are disagreements” over policy matters.
Hagel apologized to a gay-rights group last month for saying in 1998 that an “openly, aggressively gay” person couldn’t properly represent the U.S. as an ambassador.
Ken Duberstein, who was White House chief of staff in the Reagan administration, describes Hagel as a bridge-builder.
Even on the Iraq war, “people respected his judgment” because his opposition to the troop surge “was not done for political reasons, but for heartfelt beliefs,” Duberstein said in an interview.
Since leaving the Senate, Hagel has served as co-chairman of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board, a director of Chevron Corp. and chairman of the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan foreign policy group based in Washington that urges increased U.S. engagement in world affairs.
“Engagement is not surrender,” Hagel said in a Dec. 10 speech at the council. “It’s not appeasement. Engagement is a bridge-building process. It’s an opportunity to better understand, to share.”
Hagel’s readiness to lead the Defense Department, with an annual budget of more than $600 billion and more than 3 million military and civilian personnel, may be undercut by his lack of prior Pentagon or executive-branch experience, according to Ray DuBois, a former defense official.
“The Pentagon is the largest, most complex organization in the world,” DuBois, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an interview. “There’s no place you can go for a prep course.”
Armitage, who now works as a consultant, said Hagel has all the knowledge and military standing he needs.
“He drives a 25-year-old olive-green Jeep with a star on the hood,” Armitage said. “How do you think the generals will feel about that? Maybe you can say he’s been training for this job for 25 years.”