Jewish Democrats insist defense policy will ‘start and stop’ with Obama, not Hagel

Jewish Democrats insist defense policy will ‘start and stop’ with Obama, not Hagel

Republicans signal possible acceptance of president's choice of Hagel for defense; Senate Republican leader McConnell: ‘He ought to be given a fair hearing, and he will be’

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Former senator Chuck Hagel (left) shakes hands with Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta in May 2012. (photo credit: CC BY Glenn Fawcett, DoD, Flickr)
Former senator Chuck Hagel (left) shakes hands with Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta in May 2012. (photo credit: CC BY Glenn Fawcett, DoD, Flickr)

NEW YORK — Obama administration officials confirmed Monday that President Barack Obama would announce the nomination of former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan as CIA director.

The National Jewish Democratic Council, whose leadership blasted Hagel in the past for his views on Israel, responded by noting that Hagel would likely toe the line in the administration, adhering to the views of the president.

“President Barack Obama’s unprecedented pro-Israel credentials are unquestionable,” said the group, which represents the Democratic Party in the Jewish community, “and setting policy starts and stops with the president.

“While we have expressed concerns in the past, we trust that when confirmed, former senator Chuck Hagel will follow the president’s lead of providing unrivaled support for Israel — on strategic cooperation, missile defense programs, and leading the world against Iran’s nuclear program,” the group said.

The nomination comes after weeks of bitter fighting over the expected nomination. Hagel’s detractors have included both Republicans and Democrats angered by his past criticism of the Iraq war, his opposition to many Iran sanctions bills and the embargo on Cuba, and comments he made in the 1990s disparaging gays. His critical views on Israel and the US-Israel relationship have come under scrutiny and criticism as well, along with concerns expressed by some Democrats that his appointment would mark the third time in two consecutive Democratic administrations that a Republican was appointed to the Defense Department.

A key indication of the almost certain announcement of Hagel’s nomination came Sunday in the form of tweets published by Obama’s former campaign manager and top adviser David Axelrod in defense of Hagel and his Israel record.

Comments by White House officials suggest the administration feels a Hagel nomination has a very good chance of passing the Senate confirmation process despite the opposition it has already garnered.

A senior administration official told The Washington Post Monday that “a lot of Republican opposition is rooted in the fact that he left his party on Iraq. And we think it will be very hard for Republicans to stand up and be able to say that they oppose someone who was against a war that most Americans think was a horrible idea.”

Senate Minority Leader — and conservative Kentucky Republican — Mitch McConnell seemed to confirm this view when he told ABC’s “This Week on Sunday” that Hagel may have been “outspoken in foreign policy and defense over the years,” but “I think he ought to be given a fair hearing, like any other nominee. And he will be.”

A well-placed Democratic source was puzzled over the expected nomination Monday, telling The Times of Israel that Hagel is “a very independent guy, and a very independent thinker, and you don’t necessarily want the most independent thinker in your cabinet.”

But, the source insisted, a Hagel nomination would likely not change Obama’s aggressive policy on the Iranian nuclear issue, the issue that most worries Israel when it comes to Hagel’s nomination.

“Where the president stands on Iran policy has been proven again and again. He just signed a new sanctions bill days ago. I don’t think AIPAC or the Jewish community have any doubt where the president stands on Iran, and that’s not going to change,” the source said.

John Brennan, Obama’s CIA choice, is a 25-year veteran of the CIA who rose to be deputy director and is thought to have supported some of the agency’s more controversial methods, including limited use of torture on terrorist detainees and an expansion in the drone war against global terror groups.

Obama passed over Brennan for the CIA post in 2009 because of opposition from human rights groups concerned about his views. Brennan’s nomination today may reflect changes in Obama’s own views, particularly after four years in power that saw a massive expansion of the drone strike program.

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