— With former Sen. Chuck Hagel’s nomination as Defense secretary imminent, conservatives denounced his views on Israel and Iran as out of step with mainstream foreign policy, underscoring the difficulty he is likely to face winning Senate confirmation.
An administration official said Sunday that Hagel — a decorated Vietnam veteran, a Republican and a former two-term senator from Nebraska — would be nominated Monday to succeed Leon E. Panetta. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal White House planning.
The nomination is likely to set up a bruising confirmation fight. Critics on all sides already have been complaining about Hagel, with Republicans leading the charge.
Speaking on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) predicted that Hagel would be “the most antagonistic secretary of Defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history” and called it an “in-your-face nomination.”
Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume described the choice as “very peculiar,” saying on “Fox News Sunday” that Hagel did not have “a particularly distinguished record.”
And Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), while promising Hagel would get a “fair hearing,” said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he would get “tough questions” in a confirmation process.
Hagel 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 attack by conservatives.
He also has been criticized on the left for a remark he made in 1998 that a Clinton administration nominee for ambassador was “openly, aggressively gay.” Hagel recently apologized for that comment and pledged support for lesbian and gay military families.
Hagel, an Army veteran with two Purple Hearts, said in a recent interview with the history magazine Vietnam: “I’m not a pacifist. I believe in using force, but only after a very careful decision-making process. ... I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.”
In the Senate, Hagel voted to give the George W. Bush administration authority to go to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, but later he harshly criticized the conduct of both wars, irritating fellow Republicans and making him popular with Democrats critical of those wars.
Critics have focused 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 author and former State Department Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller. “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” Hagel said, but “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”
Graham told CNN on Sunday, “Quite frankly, Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking, I believe, on most issues regarding foreign policy.”
He added, “This is 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 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 emphasized “shared values and the importance of Israeli security.”
Backers 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 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.”
Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.