The bruising fight over Susan Rice’s candidacy for secretary of state was just a warmup for the title bout over President Obama’s apparent decision to nominate former Sen. Chuck Hagel for defense secretary and John Brennan for CIA chief.
Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., pulled her name from consideration for nomination as the next secretary of state following criticism from the right over remarks she made in television news appearances after a Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya. The attack resulted in the death of the U.S. ambassador there. Obama then nominated Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) for secretary of state.
At first blush, it might seem that Obama was extending a bipartisan olive branch by pushing to add a Hagel, a Republican, to his Cabinet. But the former two-term Nebraskan, who would succeed Leon Panetta as defense secretary, has a reputation for defying party loyalty for the greater cause.
Many Senate Republicans are not favoring his nomination and will probably throw all kinds of brickbats at both Brennan and Hagel.
Brennan is sure to be harshly questioned by both Republicans and Democrats about his stewardship of Obama’s controversial drone program. According to some estimates, the CIA and U.S. military have undertaken more than 300 drone strikes and killed about 2,500 people.
Much of that was done under the guidance of Brennan. Critics have contended that the U.S. drone program is killing far too many civilians and is serving to radicalize young people in the countries it is being employed, such as Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan.
Hagel, the first Vietnam veteran nominated to head defense, is likely to be hammered over his willingness to take on Iran’s nuclear threat, the size of the defense budget and his support for Israel.
He initially supported and voted for the U.S. incursion into Iraq, but later reversed his position, disagreeing with the Bush administration’s expansion of its role there.
His bona fides are indisputable. A working-class Nebraskan, Hagel was an enlisted man and earned two Purple Hearts in Vietnam. In 2008, then-Sen. Hagel accompanied then-Sen. Obama to Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan and Kuwait. Hagel defended his colleague when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who later became the GOP presidential nominee that year, said Obama’s motives for traveling to the Mideast were purely political.
Hagel may be considered a war hero, as well as a trusted ally of the president, but he also comes with baggage that will make his path to confirmation littered with tripwires.
He has a mixed record on gay rights. He now says he supports gays serving openly in the military, but in the 1990s, he opposed a Clinton administration ambassador nominee for being “openly, aggressively gay.” He later apologized for the remarks.
He opposes unilateral sanctions against Iran, but the administration certainly supports sanctions as a tool to contain Iran or slow the development of its nuclear program.
One of the biggest challenges to Hagel may come from Jewish groups and staunch supporters of Israel.
According to a letter to Democratic senators from a regional chapter of the American Jewish Committee, obtained by The New York Times, the AJC urged a no vote on Hagel because of his positions on “the efficacy of Iran sanctions, on a credible military option against Iran, on branding Hezbollah as terrorist organization, and on the special nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
Hagel supporters say the former senator has supported several issues of importance to Israel, including voting on billions of dollars in military aid, and that he backed legislation that called for shunning Hamas until it recognized Israel’s right to exist.
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) criticized the Hagel pick as an “in-your-face nomination.”
“This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel,” Graham said.
“I don’t know what his management experience is regarding the Pentagon, little, if any, so I think it’s an incredibly controversial choice.”
“If Hagel is nominated, it is very difficult to imagine a circumstance in which I could support his nomination,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) told “Fox News Sunday.”
“I’ll be a no vote on the Armed Services Committee and on the floor. Given Chuck Hagel’s statements and actions on a nuclear Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah, I think his confirmation would send exactly the wrong message to our allies and enemies alike,” Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committees, said in a statement when the nomination was official.
“Israel, our strongest ally in the region, is dealing with a lot of threat and uncertainty right now; Hagel would make that even much worse,” Vitter said.
“He hasn’t had a chance to speak for himself,” Sen. Heitkamp (D-ND) told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “Why all the pre-judging, I don’t know.”
Considering how hard Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell worked to undermine the president and limit him to one term, the effort to shoot down a presidential nominee should come as no surprise.
McConnell said Hagel would get a fair hearing, but he would be subjected to “tough questions.”
It’s nothing personal, just business as usual. Several observers, including reporters who have covered foreign affairs and the defense department, say both nominees are likely to be confirmed and that the Obama administration pretty much counted the votes before submitting their names.
Still, the nominating process is guaranteed to be bruising.
What Republicans have to ask themselves, however, is whether waging a major fight against one of their own, who is a decorated war hero, just because they want to continue making life miserable for Obama is in the party’s best interest.
The blackest eye in this fight may ultimately be the GOP’s.
Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”