WASHINGTON — The rough road to confirmation facing former Sen. Chuck Hagel if he is nominated as expected to be the next secretary of Defense was made clear Sunday as conservatives denounced his anticipated selection and painted the Vietnam veteran as out of step with mainstream foreign policy views.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina predicted that Hagel would be “the most antagonistic secretary of Defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history” and called his pick by President Obama an “in-your-face nomination.” Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume, describing the choice as “very peculiar,” said on “Fox News Sunday” that Hagel did not have “a particularly distinguished record.” And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, while promising that Hagel would get a “fair hearing,” said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he would get “tough questions” in a confirmation process.
Hagel, although a Republican, is viewed with suspicion by many in his party for past comments he has made calling on Israel to negotiate with Palestinians and for his opposition to some sanctions aimed at Iran. Since his possible nomination was floated late last year, he has come under fierce attack by conservatives.
He also has been criticized on the left for a remark he made in 1998 calling a Clinton administration ambassadorial nominee “openly, aggressively gay.” Hagel recently apologized for the comment, pledging his support for lesbian and gay military families.
The dissent over his pick does not appear to have dissuaded Obama from selecting Hagel to succeed current Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta. While White House officials said Friday afternoon that the president hadn’t yet formally offered the job to Hagel, others familiar with the process said that the announcement could come as soon as Monday.
Hagel is a former two-term senator from Nebraska and an Army veteran who was awarded two Purple Hearts for wounds received in Vietnam. In the Senate, he initially voted to give the George W. Bush administration authority to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, but later harshly criticized the conduct of both wars, irritating fellow Republicans and making him popular with Democrats critical of those wars.
Critics have pounced on his calls for direct negotiations with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that the U.S. and Israel refuse to deal with directly, and his votes against some Iran sanctions.
And Hagel rankled many with comments he made in a 2006 interview with former State Department Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller in which he said that the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people" in Congress, in a reference to AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups.
“Quite frankly, Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking I believe on most issues regarding foreign policy,” Graham said on CNN, adding that, "this an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel.”
Miller, who had interviewed Hagel for a book he was writing on the Mideast peace negotiations, wrote recently that attempts to use his comment about the “Jewish lobby” to paint Hagel as anti-Semitic were “shameful and scurrilous.” He noted that in the same interview Hagel also stressed “shared values and the importance of Israeli security.”
Supporters say Hagel showed his support for Israel by voting repeatedly to provide it with military aid and by calling for a comprehensive peace deal with the Palestinians that should not include any compromise regarding Israel's Jewish identity and that would leave Israel "free to live in peace and security."
They note that he also supported three major Iran sanctions bills: the Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act of 1998, the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 and the Iran Freedom Support Act of 2006.
When Hagel left the Senate four years ago, McConnell praised his “clear voice and stature on national security and foreign policy,” ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reminded the Senate minority leader on “This Week.”
But McConnell declined to reiterate that view Sunday.
“He's certainly been outspoken in foreign policy and defense over the years,” he said. “The question we will be answering, if he's the nominee, is do his views make sense for that particular job? I think he ought to be given a fair hearing, like any other nominee, and he will be.”