Obama nominates Hagel as secretary of defense

"He is a staunch supporter of Israel," says White House spokesman; Cantor: Choice "telegraphs weakness in the Middle East."

January 8, 2013 01:09
4 minute read.
Chuck Hagel speaks in Islamabad, April 13, 2006

Chuck Hagel speaks in Islamabad 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Mian Kursheed)

WASHINGTON – Despite growing criticism over Chuck Hagel’s positions on Israel and Iran, US President Barack Obama on Monday nominated the Republican former Nebraska senator to be the next secretary of defense.

“Chuck recognizes that American leadership is indispensable in a dangerous world,” Obama said, recalling that Hagel demonstrated that belief during a trip the two men took together to the Middle East. “He understands that America stands strongest when it stands with allies.”

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His remarks seemed to push back against the criticism over some of Hagel’s past statements and votes on issues connected to the Middle East, though Obama did not directly refer to Israel or Iran in his remarks at the White House on the nomination of Hagel and of John Brennan, currently the White House counterterrorism advisor, as head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Obama also praised Hagel’s independent streak.

“In the Senate, I came to admire his courage, his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind even if it wasn’t popular, and even if it defied the conventional wisdom,” he said. “That’s exactly the spirit I want on my national security team.”

Hagel echoed this assessment in his own brief comments accepting the position, saying that he would always give the president “my honest and most informed counsel.” Hagel also said he was grateful for having the opportunity to continue to “strengthen our country, and strengthen our country’s alliances.”

At a press briefing following the announcement, White House spokesman Jay Carney defended the nominee’s record on Israel.

“Senator Hagel has been a staunch supporter of Israel, of the Israeli-American relationship, of the United States’s support for Israel’s security throughout his career,” he said. “He has also been, as demonstrated by his record, a supporter of the broad sanctions regime that the president has put into place against Iran.”

Carney added that Obama’s strong ties with Israel would continue under “all the members of his national security team,” as would his policies of strict sanctions on Iran.

Hagel himself declared in an interview with the Lincoln Journal Star Monday that his record has been “completely distorted” and that it in fact demonstrated “unequivocal, total support for Israel” and an endorsement of tough international economic sanctions against Iran.

He also said there is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli, not one [Senate] vote that matters that hurt Israel.” He continued, “I didn’t sign on to certain resolutions and letters because they were counter-productive and didn’t solve a problem.”

Critics, however, have expressed concern about Hagel’s past description of an intimidating “Jewish lobby” on Capitol Hill in reference to supporters of Israel; certain votes opposing Iran sanctions; and his unwillingness to sign letters that included calling on the EU to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization.

Hagel has also come under fire for comments he made in the 1990s opposing the confirmation of an “openly, aggressively gay” man to be a US ambassador, statements for which he recently apologized.

Obama called on Monday for a speedy confirmation process to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Michigan) called Hagel “well-qualified” for the position Monday and said he would give “prompt and careful consideration” to Hagel’s nomination. The comments suggested that Levin believed Hagel had sufficient backing to clear his committee.

Whether the broader Senate will approve the nomination, however, remains an open question. Some Republican senators have already indicated they will likely break tradition and vote against their former colleague and party member, and many have said they will carefully question him. Several Democrats have also suggested they are uneasy with certain aspects of his record.

In response to the nomination, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Virginia) expressed his displeasure with Obama’s choice.

“I am profoundly concerned and disappointed by President Obama’s nomination of former senator Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense. Recent reporting has made clear that senator Hagel’s views and inflammatory statements about Israel are well outside the mainstream and raise well-founded doubts that he can be trusted to manage the special relationship the United States shares with our greatest Middle East ally,” he said in a released statement.

Cantor also called into question Hagel’s past positions on Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran, saying his views “call into question his judgment about the most important matters facing our national security.”

“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,” the statement also read.

“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.”

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