Published on 7 Jan 2013 Sections ,

Hagel faces Senate battle for top Pentagon job

President Obama has nominated maverick Republican Chuck Hagel as his new defence secretary – but critics in his own party are giving him a tough ride over his stance on Israel and Iran.

Obama with Hagel

President Obama urged the Senate to confirm Chuck Hagel and his pick for CIA chief John Brennan “as soon as possible… so we can keep our nation secure and the American people safe”.

But leading Republicans are already on the warpath, even though Mr Obama’s choice for the top job at the Pentagon hails from their own ranks. But then, Hagel was never a comfortable fit with the increasingly hawkish bent of the GOP, not since his decision to break away from the party line and oppose the war in Iraq.

Hagel was twice decorated with a Purple Heart for his courage on the front lines in Vietnam. He would be the first US secretary to have served as an enlisted soldier. The president clearly trusts him and has confidence in his military and political judgment.

‘In your face’ second term

But look at the instant reaction: Republican senator Lindsey Graham said it showed Obama was clearly planning an “in your face” second term. GOP deputy communications director Tim Miller, on Twitter, mocked the White House for appointing “3 old white guys”, bracketing Hagel alongside John Kerry, for the State Department, and Brennan at the CIA.

Critics from outside his own party, as well as in, have taken issue with Hagel’s position on Israel, some even branding him anti-Semitic. In 2006, he gave an interview where he descriped the powerful pro-Israel group AIPAC as “the Jewish lobby”. And, he went on: “I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”

He has also voted against imposing unilateral sanctions on Iran and has cautioned loudly against the wisdom of military intervention over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, warning that there can be no such thing as a limited, controllable war.

Asserting American values

And right now, it is not just conservatives but the Republican mainstream which believes that the use of force, whether in Afghanistan, in Iraq, or potentially now, in Iran, is the correct way to asssert American values and prove America’s resolve.

There has also been an outcry over Hagel’s record on gay rights, dating back to a comment he once made back in 1998, about a Clinton-era ambassadorial nominee, James Hormel.

Hagel described the diplomat as “openly, aggressively gay” and described his homosexuality as an “inhibiting factor” that might prevent him from doing an effective job.

Hagel has now apologised, describing his remarks as “insensitive” – an apology which Hormel himself has accepted, although he questioned its political timing.

Nonetheless, the Log Cabin group of Republicans has taken out a full-page advertisement in the Washington Post, opposing Hagel’s nomination and describing his apology as “too little, too late.” They point out that he voted against the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell legislation for gays in the military.

But former Democratic congressman Barney Frank, who has openly criticised Hagel’s remarks, told the Boston Globe on Monday that he would support his nomination. “In terms of the policy stuff, if he would be rejected (by the Senate), it would be a setback for those things”, he said.

Knives and hawks

And it seems Hagel is attracting as many supporters as detractors. David Axelrod described him enthusiastically on Twitter as “tough, courageous, sensible and able to withstand political pressure to do what’s right for USA. What we need!”

A group of nine former US ambassadors, five of them posted to Israel, signed an open letter last month endorsing Hagel, rejecting any charges that he was anti-semitic and insisting there were few better qualified, non-partisan, or better equipped for the job.

At issue, beneath the public bluster, though, is not some years-old remarks, but the future direction of America’s foreign policy in Obama’s second term. The New York Times questions those who insist that failure to support the ever rightwards shift of Israel’s Likud leadership is automatically anti-Israel.

Hagel’s appointment, they argue, should prompt a debate over who Israel’s true friends are, and how to achieve a peaceful future of long-term security in the Middle East, rather than branding around accusations of anti-Semitism.

As for Iran, Hagel would most likely be reluctant to use military force: but there is no general appetite for war with Tehran among the American people either. A profile which the New Republic ran five years ago shows how the Vietnam veteran came to support the US withdrawal from the war in Iraq as a direct result of his own combat experience.

Fighting talk

Once again, Hagel believed, the United States was sending young working class men to fight in a war which they could no longer justify or sustain. But voting against the GOP line cost him dear. His wife Lilibet told the New Yorker it was as if he had become “a skunk at a garden party”.

When Senate leader Harry Reid paid tribute to him as he departd the chamber in 2008, he made a point of it: “As all senators know, speaking up against a hallmark policy of one’s own party is no easy task.”

Independence of thought, trustworthiness, and a sound military experience are, though, qualities which the president has clearly sought out for his new cabinet; a sign, perhaps, that in his second term Obama will be less bound by convention, and more self confident about his own policy direction.

Word is that Hagel’s nomination will be confirmed, that he will join fellow Vietnam vet John Kerry and long-time national security official John Brennan, as the face America will present to the rest of the world.

With sweeping cuts to the defence budget looming in just two months, this could be just the beginning of Obama’s fight.

Felicity Spector writes about US politics for Channel 4 News