US President Barack Obama is wavering about the potential nomination of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel for the position of defense secretary, according to a report published Sunday by the National Journal, a well-connected inside-the-Beltway publication.
Citing an anonymous senior administration official, the Journal reported that Obama is now considering Michele Flournoy and Ashton Carter for the position. Should Obama pick Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy, it would be the first time a woman was nominated to be Pentagon chief.
Some American Jewish leaders contend Hagel, who left the Senate in 2008,
at times opposed Israel's interests, voting several times against US
sanctions on Iran, and made disparaging remarks about the influence of
what he called a "Jewish lobby" in Washington.
With Hagel until now considered a leading choice for defense secretary, the White
House on Thursday joined allies rallying to support him against an onslaught of
criticism, led by some pro-Israel groups and neo-conservatives, but also
including former colleagues on Capitol Hill.
"Senator Hagel fought and bled for his country. He served his
country well. He was an excellent senator," White House spokesman Jay
Carney said, without acknowledging that Hagel was under consideration to
succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. He did not address any of the
specific criticisms aimed at Hagel.
It was the second time since Obama's re-election last month that the White House has found itself forced to defend a Cabinet candidate who has yet to be nominated for anything, a source of frustration for the president's advisers. UN Ambassador Susan Rice took her name out of the running for secretary of state, a role for which Obama nominated Senator John Kerry instead, earning plaudits from both Congress and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Criticized on Israel, Cuba
Some of the attacks on Hagel stem from comments he made to former US diplomat Aaron David Miller for his 2008 book, "The Much Too Promised Land," in which Hagel was quoted as saying, "The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here."
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said earlier this week that Hagel would "have to answer for that comment" if he is nominated.
William Kristol of the conservative Weekly Standard wrote in a recent column that Hagel "has anti-Israel, pro-appeasement-of-Iran bona fides."
Hagel's supporters have started firing back, insisting he has shown himself supportive of Israel and tough on Iran.
"His views are strong, solid on American foreign policy. I'm amazed at the turnout of the neo-cons and so on," Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser under President George H.W. Bush, told Reuters.
He was referring to the neo-conservatives, a loose group of right-wing foreign policy thinkers who gained ascendancy during the tenure of Obama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal American Jewish group, denounced what he said was a "smear campaign" against Hagel.
Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio's office said he also would have questions about Hagel's record on Cuba, and raised the possibility of putting a hold on his nomination. Hagel has voiced doubts about the wisdom and effectiveness of maintaining the decades-old US trade embargo on communist Cuba.
Many Republicans consider Hagel suspect. He was an early dissenter on the Iraq war - an issue that helped Obama rise to prominence - and crossed the aisle to endorse the president in his successful re-election bid this year.
Since leaving the Senate after two terms, he has also been a vocal critic of his own party's fiscal policies.
Obama is said to feel comfortable with Hagel. The two traveled together to the Middle East during the 2008 campaign. Hagel currently co-chairs Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board.