US President Barack Obama on Monday announced the nomination of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as his next defense secretary and counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan to head the CIA, two choices likely to stoke controversy.
"Chuck represents the bipartisan tradition that we need more of in Washington," Obama said in a 'personnel announcement' at the White House. "Chuck learned to speak his mind even if it's not popular, even if it's not the conventional wisdom," he added.
Hagel appears destined for a bruising Senate confirmation battle, given that critics have already launched an onslaught over his record on Israel and Iran.
Former Republican colleagues have joined pro-Israel groups and neoconservatives in questioning Hagel's commitment to Israel's security and slamming disparaging remarks about what he once called a "Jewish lobby" in Washington. US House Majority Leader Eric Cantor criticized Obama over the nomination, saying that the move faces "widespread and bipartisan opposition."
"I am profoundly concerned and disappointed by President Obama’s nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel to be Secretary of Defense," Cantor said. "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."
In a press briefing following the nomination announcements, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Senator Chuck Hagel has been a staunch supporter of Israel and of the Israeli-American relationship "[Hagel] has also been a supporter of the broad sanctions regime which the president has put in place against Iran - an unprecedented regime," Carney said.
White House confident of nominations despite opposition
The White House is confident it can weather criticism of Hagel's record, get his nomination through the Senate committee that will consider it and win confirmation in the Democratic-led chamber, according to a source familiar with the nomination process.
But in recent weeks a number of prominent Republicans have said they would oppose Hagel, who has often been at odds with his own party on foreign policy and fiscal matters.
Critics contend that Hagel, who left the Senate in 2008, at times opposed Israel's interests, voting several times against US sanctions on Iran. But Hagel's supporters, including many Jewish Democrats, insist he has a strong pro-Israel record.