Opposition to Hagel nomination grows, but supporters rally around likely defense chief pick

Washington Post claims Obama’s choice for Pentagon is ‘well to the left’ of the president, while defenders argue he is pro-Israel ‘but knows the grim costs of going to war without a plan’

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

Chuck Hagel, at podium, speaking at a conference in May. (photo credit: Glenn Fawcett/Department of Defense)
Chuck Hagel, at podium, speaking at a conference in May. (photo credit: Glenn Fawcett/Department of Defense)

NEW YORK — Former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel’s chances to be nominated as secretary of defense sustained more blows Wednesday as the chorus of opponents to his expected nomination continued to grow.

The Washington Post devoted an editorial Wednesday to the issue, titling it, “Chuck Hagel is not the right choice for defense secretary.” The newspaper noted that Hagel’s “stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term — and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him.”

The American Jewish Committee, considered solidly in the mainstream of American Jewish political discourse, also came out against the nomination.

In an email to the Washington Post’s “Right Turn” blog, AJC executive director David Harris related his own experience with Hagel, which, he said, left him “concerned.”

“The first AJC encounter with Sen. Hagel I recall was when we sought his support, in 1999, for a Senate letter to then Russian President Boris Yeltsin urging action against rising anti-Semitism,” Harris wrote.

“We were unsuccessful. On June 20, 1999, we published the letter as a full-page ad in The New York Times with 99 Senate signatories. Only Sen. Hagel’s name was absent.”

The organization’s “concern then has only grown since, as we have witnessed his stance on a range of core US national security priorities.

“What is striking is that the opposition to him today is being labeled as ‘neocon,’ when a number of his documented positions, in fact, have been contrary to the Obama Administration’s to date — on Iran sanctions, on a credible military option against Iran, on Hezbollah as a terrorist group, on the special nature of the US-Israel relationship, etc.,” Harris wrote.

“Against that backdrop, what message would the President be sending if he opted to go ahead with such a nomination?” he wondered.

Not unexpectedly, conservative pro-Israel groups have opposed Hagel vociferously. After clashing with the senator – and more recently, Obama adviser – over their disparate policy views, they oppose Hagel’s nomination on the same grounds.

The Emergency Committee for Israel, a conservative group that was critical of Obama’s policies on Israel, particularly during the last election, released a 30-second television ad that will air on Washington-area cable stations Thursday and Friday.

Titled “Not an Option,” the ad “highlights Hagel’s troubling record on Iran,” according to ECI executive director Noah Pollak.

“The ad recounts Hagel’s numerous votes against sanctions, his opposition to designating the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, and his view that there is no ‘viable’ military option for preventing a nuclear Iran — in contrast to President Obama, who insists all options remain on the table,” Pollak said.

Reports surfaced late last week that Hagel is considered a front-runner for the nomination. Since the initial reports, observers have speculated that the White House leaked the nomination choice a week before the expected formal announcement on December 21 in order to gauge the reaction.

As opposition has grown, Hagel’s supporters have started to speak up as well.

Foreign Policy’s The Cable blog noted that Hagel’s ability to respond to the attacks is limited.

“Hagel has no large staff, no official administration position, and no communications infrastructure that is actively working to push back against bad press,” the magazine’s Josh Rogin noted Wednesday.

This has led to “several of Hagel’s friends and former staffers” to start “to organize an effort to defend the former Nebraska senator, who they believe is being treated unfairly.”

Among these efforts is a two-page pamphlet being circulated on the website Scribd that insists Hagel “is being misrepresented as anti-Israel and ‘soft’ on Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah.”

It quotes Hagel’s 2008 book “America: Our Next Chapter,” in which the former Republican senator writes in favor of a “special and historic bond” between the US and Israel, and insists any peace agreement “should not include any compromise regarding Israel’s Jewish identity.”

Two top former defense officials in Republican administrations spoke to Foreign Policy in support of Hagel.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” said Richard Armitage, a former deputy secretary of state in the Republican administration of George W. Bush, of the attacks on Hagel. “I’ve known him quite closely for the last 15 years and I’ve never heard him utter any anti-Semitic statement. If he used the term ‘Jewish lobby,’ that’s a poor choice of words and I’m sure he’ll speak for himself on that.

“I happen to know the guy,” Armitage added. “He’s not owned by anybody, he happens to think for himself, and this apparently causes some fear in some cases. He’s got an unerring bullshit sensor, he’s got real stones, and he doesn’t mind telling you what his opinion is, which will stand him in very good stead in the Pentagon if the president nominates him.”

According to Brent Scowcroft, a former air force general and Republican national security adviser, “Senator Hagel is one of the most well-respected and thoughtful voices on both foreign and domestic policy. At an uncertain time in America – with a significant debt burden, a polarized Congress, and a host of challenges facing the international community, I am confident Senator Hagel will provide a vibrant, no-nonsense voice of logic and leadership to the United States.”

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank was among the first to defend Hagel, laying out in a Tuesday column what he said was Hagel’s pro-Israel legislative record, one which reflects “an infantry sergeant who isn’t opposed to war (he voted for the conflicts in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq) but knows the grim costs of going to war without a plan… indicative of a decorated military man who, unlike some of his neocon critics, knows that military action doesn’t solve everything.”

Hagel, Milbank noted, “voted for the Iran Nonproliferation Act, the Palestinian Anti-Terrorism Act and the Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act. He co-sponsored resolutions opposing any unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state and praising Israel’s efforts ‘in the face of terrorism, hostility and belligerence by many of her neighbors.’ He also co-sponsored legislation urging the international community ‘to avoid contact with and refrain from supporting the terrorist organization Hamas until it agrees to recognize Israel, renounce violence, disarm and accept prior agreements.’”

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