As Obama Looks to Hagel for Defense Secretary, GOP Opposition Builds

With President Obama on the verge of reaching out to close ally former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska to serve as defense secretary, much of the opposition to him from the Republican Party centers around Israel.

When it comes to Israel, the politics are always extremely sensitive on both sides of the aisle. Hagel, a Republican and a highly decorated Vietnam veteran who has two Purple Hearts and still has pieces of shrapnel in his chest, once angered Israeli backers by using the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to advocates for Israel. He also has said that Israel should negotiate with Palestinians to seek a two-state solution — another big no-no for Israel’s supporters.

In a 2006 interview with author and former State Department Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller, Hagel said, “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”

Apparently all those advocates in Washington who aggressively push for Israeli causes do not like to be called lobbyists.

“Quite frankly, Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking, I believe, on most issues regarding foreign policy,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told CNN. “This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel. I don’t know what his management experience is regarding the Pentagon — little, if any — so I think it’s an incredibly controversial choice.”

Graham, along with Republican Sen. John McCain, led the chorus against U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice when her name was floated as a possible candidate for secretary of state.

But Miller, the author who got that Hagel quote, recently wrote that using his comment about the “Jewish lobby” to paint Hagel as anti-Semitic was “shameful and scurrilous.” He pointed out that in the same interview, Hagel emphasized “shared values and the importance of Israeli security.”

Obama has relied on Hagel’s counsel since 2008, when they took a trip together to Iraq during the 2008 presidential campaign and Hagel, still in the Senate, defended Obama when McCain attacked his motives for the trip. Hagel is considered a Republican who is extremely skeptical of sending American troops into battle unless it is the last resort. Though he voted in favor of the Iraq War in the beginning, Hagel became an early critic, like Obama.

Hagel, 66, made his riches as co-founder of a cellular telephone company and the head of an investment banking firm. He was elected to the Senate from Nebraska in 1996 and served two terms, retiring in 2009 to teach at Georgetown University and run the Atlantic Council, a centrist foreign policy group.

In addition to his comments about Israel, Hagel is also viewed with skepticism by Republicans because he has expressed doubt about the efficacy of using sanctions to stop Iran’s possible build-up of nuclear weapons — again angering Israel. Some gay groups have also said they object to Hagel because in the late 1990s he opposed a Clinton administration ambassadorial nominee for being “openly, aggressively gay,” and for his past stances on gay rights issues.

But Hagel’s supporters say he has evolved on gay rights, just like much of the country, since the 1990s.

Despite the criticisms, The White House is betting that it will be able to corral enough votes from both parties for Hagel to get through.

“At the end of the day, Republicans will support a decorated war hero who was their colleague for 12 years and has critical experience on veterans’ issues,” an administration official told The New York Times. “It would be hard to explain a no vote just because he bucked his party on Iraq, a war most Americans think was a disaster.”

The American Jewish Committee has been circulating letters to Democratic senators, urging them to oppose Hagel.

A letter obtained by The New York Times, said: “While AJC recognizes Senator Hagel’s record of service to our country and the people of Nebraska, his opinions on a range of core U.S. national security priorities run counter to what AJC advocates and what President Obama has articulated — notably, on the efficacy of Iran sanctions, on a credible military option against Iran, on branding Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and on the special nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”


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