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Tough fight awaits Hagel for SecDef post

Jan. 7, 2013 - 03:59PM   |   Last Updated: Jan. 7, 2013 - 03:59PM  |  
President Obama announces Jan. 7 that he is nominating Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan, right, as the new director of the CIA and former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, left, as the new Defense secretary. Obama made the announcement at the White House.
President Obama announces Jan. 7 that he is nominating Deputy National Security Adviser for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan, right, as the new director of the CIA and former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, left, as the new Defense secretary. Obama made the announcement at the White House. (Charles Dharapak / AP)
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President Obama nominated former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to serve as defense secretary and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to head the CIA, two key administration national security posts.

Obama called Hagel the "leader that our troops deserve," during a speech at the White House on Monday.

A former Army sergeant who fought in the Vietnam War, Hagel would be the first enlisted veteran to lead the military if confirmed.

Obama praised the bipartisanship Hagel showed during his two terms in the Senate and urged the Senate to act on Hagel's nomination "promptly."

"In the Senate, I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind, even if it wasn't popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom," Obama said. "And that's exactly the spirit I want on my national security team, a recognition that when it comes to the defense of our country, we are not Democrats or Republicans, we are Americans."

Hagel has served as the chairman of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board and is also chairman of the Atlantic Council.

"This is particularly important at a time as we complete our mission in Afghanistan and support the troops and military families who have sacrificed so much over more than a decade of war," Hagel said appearing alongside Obama. "I'm also grateful for an opportunity to help continue to strengthen our country and strengthen our country's alliances and advance global freedom, decency and humanity as we help build a better world for all mankind."

If confirmed, Hagel would replace Leon Panetta, who has been serving as defense secretary since July 2011. Brennan would replace David Petraeus, who resigned in November after admitting an extramarital affair.

Hagel's nomination, which has been rumored for the past month, has met with a mixture of criticism and praise.

The fuel for the attacks comes from a 2008 interview he gave to author Aaron David Miller in which the former Nebraska senator said, "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here." He noted, as a senator, he never recalled signing policy letters sent around Capitol Hill by AIPAC, a leading pro-Israel advocacy organization because "I'm a United States senator … not an Israeli senator."

Other criticisms of a possible Hagel nomination, on broader policy grounds, have come from widely respected groups. For instance, the influential Washington Post editorial board this week pointed out Hagel's views on a list of major issues "fall well to the left" of those Obama pursued during his in first term.

Hagel supporters have since fired back, but some in Washington wonder whether too much damage has been done for Hagel to be confirmed by the full Senate. To that end, some lawmakers before the holidays told Defense News they do not understand why the White House keeps floating names for national security Cabinet posts, only to hold off on formally nominating individuals, which leaves them open to criticism.

Confirmation Fight

In picking Hagel and ignoring harsh GOP criticism, Obama and his top aides are opting for a bitter nomination fight. Yet, notably, GOP senators voicing concerns have yet to use the dreaded "H Word" any senator can anonymously place a hold on a nominee, preventing a vote by the full Senate.

The Senate Armed Services Committee will be tasked with conducting Hagel's nomination hearing, or hearings. The panel's incoming ranking Republican, Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, issued a Jan. 7 statement saying "his nomination deserves to be fully vetted."

"The Armed Services Committee has a time-tested process to consider nominations, and I am committed to upholding that process," Inhofe said. "I am aware of the serious concerns about some of his policy positions, his record, and some of his comments that have been publically reported. I will be seeking clarification from him about these concerns as his nomination proceeds."

The panel's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., said, "Sen. Hagel is well qualified to serve as secretary of defense with his broad experience in national security affairs. He was a decorated soldier and an effective member of the Senate, and he is a strong advocate for the men and women of our military. The Armed Services Committee will give prompt and careful consideration to Sen. Hagel's nomination for this critical position."

There are increasing signs that a floor vote on Hagel's nomination could be close. Of course, like all Cabinet nominees, he will make one-on-one calls with a long list of senators. He may be able to personally secure votes from wavering senators.

On ABC's "This Week" political talk show, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said he intends to "wait and see how the hearings go and see whether [Hagel's] views square with the job he would be nominated to do." He added:

The GOP leader said he will "take a look at all the things that [Hagel] has said over the years and review that, and in terms of his qualifications to lead our nation's military."

But McConnell's top Senate deputy, GOP Whip John Cornyn of Texas, flatly says he "will not support Chuck Hagel's [expected] nomination to the Department of Defense [because] his record and past statements, particularly with respect to rogue nations like Iran, are extremely concerning to me," he said in a statement.

"[Hagel's] opposition to Iranian sanctions and support for direct, unconditional talks with its leaders is both at odds with current U.S. policy and a threat to global security. To make matters worse, he has called for direct negotiations with Hamas."

Another gripe from Republicans is comments Hagel has made about direct talks with Iran over that nation's alleged nuclear-arms program.

"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," Cornyn said.

Members interviewed by Defense News just before the holidays largely split along party lines about supporting Hagel, ironically, with Democrats voicing support for the former GOP lawmaker and Republicans raising red flags. That trend continued in the hours before Obama formally tapped Hagel for defense secretary.

Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Jack Reed of Rhode Island issued statements supporting Hagel.

"He is a combat veteran who still carries shrapnel in his body from his wounds he will not need on-the-job training," Leahy said of the nominee.

Some Republicans raised concerns, while others flatly said they would not support Hagel.

"Chuck was a neighbor in Nebraska and a friend, so I think we've got to give him the deference, as a former fellow-senator, that he deserves," Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said in a Dec. 20 interview. "I do think as many of my colleagues have stated, if he does get nominated, during the confirmation process there are positions and statements that he'll have to answer questions about … particularly some of the more sensitive ones in terms of foreign policy. I think that's a natural part of the process."

Perhaps the best indicator of just how much of an uphill nomination fight can be expected will come from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

In one 2008 media interview, McCain suggested Hagel would have been a good pick for Obama's first-term Cabinet. At that time, McCain said they were "close and dear friends" who simply reached different conclusions about the Iraq conflict.

Hagel in 2006 wrote an op-ed panning the George W. Bush administration's troop surge and questioning the wisdom of staying in that war; McCain was a surge supporter and opposed Obama's decision to remove all U.S. forces from Iraq.

In the same 2008 interview, McCain called Hagel a "respected leader in America" who "served his country admirably, with honor and distinction."

But McCain sounded a much different tone Dec. 20 in a brief interview with Defense News when asked if he would support Hagel for defense secretary.

"I would wait until he's nominated and examine things," McCain said. "There are some disagreements that we've had over the years. I would examine his nomination and give him an opportunity but I certainly haven't decided."

In a Jan. 7 statement, McCain said he has "serious concerns about positions Sen. Hagel has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years, which we will fully consider in the course of his confirmation process before the Senate Armed Services Committee."

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