Hagel Fights Back at Critics as Obama Picks His New Team

Chuck Hagel, a twice-wounded Vietnam veteran, said he’s ready to defend himself as President Barack Obama’s already embattled choice to lead the Pentagon.

“The distortions about my record have been astounding,” the Republican former senator from Nebraska told his hometown newspaper, the Lincoln Journal Star, within hours of Obama’s nomination announcement yesterday at the White House. “All I look for is an opportunity to respond.”

Hagel emerged as the most disputed pick for Obama’s second-term national security team because of positions such as his opposition to the U.S. troop surge during the Iraq war and his comments on the influence of the “Jewish lobby.” Obama, who last month chose Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts to be his next secretary of state, yesterday also named John Brennan, the White House counterterrorism adviser, to head the Central Intelligence Agency.

Brennan, 57, will face questions at his Senate confirmation hearing over support for administration policies such as targeted drone strikes. Some Republican senators said yesterday they also want to ask him whether White House officials leaked classified information to burnish Obama’s re-election prospects.

Colleagues of both parties have predicted that Kerry, 69, will win confirmation once Hillary Clinton, the departing Secretary of State, testifies before Congress about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. Clinton returned to work yesterday after a month-long illness that caused her to postpone her testimony.

In choosing Hagel, 66, as defense secretary, Obama cited the combat wounds that earned the Nebraskan two Purple Hearts in the Vietnam War.

Scars, Shrapnel

“To this day, Chuck bears the scars and the shrapnel from battles he fought in our name,” Obama said.

Senators of both parties have said they want to hear more from Hagel about his views, and some Republicans already have vowed to vote against confirming him.

“As Iran becomes increasingly hostile and gains influence in the region, the worst possible message we could send to our friend Israel and the rest of our allies in the Middle East is Chuck Hagel,” John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate’s No. 2 Republican leader, said yesterday in a statement.

Opponents cite Hagel’s past opposition to unilateral economic sanctions against Iran -- the Obama administration has sought international support for the U.S. sanctions now in effect -- and some of his Senate votes, such as one in 2007 opposing the designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps as a terrorist organization.

‘Jewish Lobby’

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 Hagel was in any way “anti-Israel.”

Hagel’s critics, led by William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard magazine, have been questioning his positions for a month, after reports that he was high on Obama’s list to lead the Pentagon. Kristol called Hagel “very anti-Israel.”

While most Cabinet nominees decline public comment as they prepare for their confirmation hearings, Hagel hit back in the hometown interview yesterday, saying 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.”

‘Poor Choice’

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 to meet with administration officials, declined to comment yesterday on the Hagel selection, saying “it is not our custom to interfere in democratic procedures in other democracies.”

‘Cautious Isolationism’

The speaker of Israel’s parliament, Reuven Rivlin, said he was “worried” about how Hagel’s “cautious isolationism” would affect American foreign policy.

Hagel’s “approach should be of concern to Israel but should not scare her,” Rivlin said in a statement e-mailed from his office in Jerusalem. “It’s important for Israel to know how to deal with it.”

Brennan was considered the front-runner to head the CIA when Obama, a Democrat, first won the presidency in 2008. He withdrew from consideration after some Democrats voiced concerns about his links to the agency under President George W. Bush, a Republican, and the CIA’s use of techniques such as waterboarding, which simulates drowning, when questioning captured or suspected terrorists.

Interrogation Programs

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, who was tortured as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, said in a statement yesterday that he planned to examine what role Brennan may have had “in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration, as well as his public defense of those programs.”

Cornyn said he is concerned because Brennan hasn’t been “exonerated” as a source of leaks of national security information that are the subject of a Justice Department investigation, according to Megan Mitchell, the senator’s press secretary.

Brennan, a specialist on the Middle East, served as an Obama campaign adviser in 2008. In the White House, Brennan helped plan and advise on the assault that killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. He also worked with Obama to choose militants as targets for drone strikes.

“He is one of the hardest-working public servants I’ve ever seen,” Obama said of Brennan yesterday. “I’m not sure he’s slept in four years.”

CIA Veteran

Brennan would take over from Mike Morell, a veteran of the CIA, who has been acting director since retired Army General David Petraeus resigned in November over an extramarital affair.

If Hagel wins confirmation, he will face challenges such as reducing defense spending, tackling 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, who would be the first former enlisted man to head the Pentagon, is uniquely equipped to take on generals over how fast to withdraw troops from Afghanistan and how to cut forces and weapons in a time of tight budgets, 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.

Last Resort

Hagel came back from the war with 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.”

During 12 years in the Senate, Hagel established his reputation as an independent thinker on foreign policy, sometimes irking colleagues.

He broke with his party in 2007 over Bush’s proposed surge of 30,000 troops to bolster the U.S. combat effort in Iraq. Hagel co-sponsored a resolution opposing the troop increase.

“Maybe I have no political future,” he said at a Senate hearing on Bush’s Iraq policy. “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.”

Troop Deployment

The resolution never came to a Senate vote, and the additional troops were deployed. Hagel’s stance alienated some fellow Republicans, while giving him an ally in then-Senator Barack Obama, a Democratic freshman from Illinois who in winning his seat in 2004 opposed the Iraq war. The two developed a camaraderie traveling together to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2008.

Hagel declined to endorse McCain, a longtime friend and fellow Vietnam veteran, for president over Obama in the 2008 presidential election. He also didn’t seek Senate re-election that year.

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.

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