As expected, Barack Obama pushed forward this week with two appointments that fill key vacancies in his national security staff. John Brennan's appointment to replace David Petraeus as CIA director might have been a mild surprise, as acting DCI Michael Morell might have expected to get the job full time. Nonetheless, Brennan won't generate much controversy during a confirmation process. He had been shortlisted for the job when Obama first took office, but roused too much criticism from Obama's allies over Brennan's support of Bush-era policies and tactics in the war on terror. Since Obama has adopted most of the same policies and tactics — especially drone warfare — without much more than grumbling from the left, Brennan's confirmation should go relatively smoothly.
That won't be the case with the other appointment announced by Obama in a press conference on Monday. The selection of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense didn't exactly come as a surprise; Washington had been buzzing about Hagel replacing the retiring Leon Panetta for weeks. But that buzz had hardly been positive, and even senators of Obama's own party (who will be needed to confirm Hagel) sounded anything but enthused.
Normally, presidents select senators for potentially controversial nominations in order to avoid drama in confirmation hearings. The Senate has a clubby atmosphere, and the collegial nature among present and former members usually provides uneventful confirmations. When the nominee comes from the opposition party, as Hagel does, it would normally mean an even less tense confirmation. But Hagel's past — and the country's future — makes this a collision point worth watching.
Over the last few weeks, Hagel's past positions and comments have come under increasing scrutiny as his chances of getting the nomination became stronger. Hagel, who served two contentious terms in the Senate representing Nebraska, has had trouble maintaining what campaigns call "message discipline," which basically means refraining from embarrassing statements. The comments made by Hagel that have him in the hottest water came in a 2006 interview with Aaron David Miller. "The political reality is... that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here." Hagel went on to tell an anecdote about being challenged by a lobbyist about his lack of concern over Israel, which concludes with Hagel telling the lobbyist, "Let me clear something up for you. I'm a United States senator, not an Israeli senator."
Needless to say, this did not endear Hagel to supporters of Israel. Plenty of other senators will want to know what Hagel meant by "the Jewish lobby," which sounds rather conspiratorial and ignorant of the broad base of support for Israel among Americans of many faiths. A few of those senators who do support Israel more strongly than Hagel — Democrats like Chuck Schumer and Dianne Feinstein, for instance — have expressed little enthusiasm for Hagel's nomination, and might wonder openly whether Hagel considered their support for Israel somehow disloyal to the U.S., as his anecdote seems to imply.
It's not just his comments, either, but also his votes and public positions. On a number of occasions, Hagel put himself on the fringe of the U.S. Senate when it came to policies on the Middle East. Hagel's opponents have collected examples of this at the oddly available website ChuckHagel.com (which the White House and its allies inexplicably didn't grab when they had the chance). In August 2006, for example, Hagel refused to sign a letter asking the EU to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization, one of only 12 in the chamber to balk. A month earlier, when Israel had retaliated against Hezbollah in southern Lebanon after attacks and the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers, Hagel had accused Israel of conducting a "sickening slaughter" in the war and demanded that George W. Bush tell Israel to stop fighting — and then open direct negotiations with Iran and Syria to end the Israeli offensive.
Three years later, when out of office, Hagel publicly urged Barack Obama to negotiate directly with Hamas, which the U.S. has designated a terrorist organization since 1997, along with Hezbollah. Oddly, that same year Hagel insisted that Syria wanted to abandon its support for Hezbollah and Hamas, and that American engagement with Bashar al-Assad would provide "a real possibility of a shift in Syria's strategic thinking and policies." Obama bolstered the U.S. diplomatic effort with Damascus, sending Robert Ford in an effort to accomplish what Hagel insisted was possible. But the only shift that took place was in the direction of more oppression and continued support for terrorism, including its own. In this case, though, Hagel was no more wrong than Obama and his secretary of state, who insisted that Assad was an agent of "reform" nearly until other Arab states began pulling their diplomats out of Damascus in disgust.
All of this will come up in the high-profile confirmation hearing, and not just from fellow Republicans who appear united in opposition to Hagel. A few Democrats might hammer Hagel on his reference to an "openly and aggressively gay" ambassadorial nominee in 1998, for which he just recently apologized. Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), the first openly gay senator to serve, didn't sound convinced yet of Hagel's sincerity. "I do want to speak with him," Baldwin told Andrea Mitchell on Monday, "particularly about his comments 14 years ago, to see if his apology is sincere and sufficient."
It's puzzling enough to see how this kind of confirmation hearing benefits Obama, with all of these questions about Hagel's past. The better questions, though, should focus on Hagel's future in a potential conflict, for which a secretary of defense must prepare. One of the potential conflicts on the horizon is with Iran over its pursuit of nuclear weapons, and on a somewhat less-acute plane, its support for terrorist networks such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
And Hagel's record on Iran may be even more suspect than in any other area. He has opposed sanctions on Iran since 2001, when he opposed the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (which passed 96-2), intended to prevent funding for terrorism or acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. Five years later, with the Iranian nuclear program exposed, Hagel gave a speech in Pakistan declaring that "a military strike against Iran, a military option, is not a viable, feasible, responsible option." On at least three subsequent occasions, Hagel voted against or blocked sanctions or terror designations on Iran, all of which enjoyed wide bipartisan support.
With that in mind, what kind of signal does a Hagel nomination as the steward of American military send? Supposedly, Obama had repented of his 2008 comment that Iran was "tiny" and didn't pose a "serious threat" to the United States. He has tried to give the impression that he learned a lesson from the weak response to the Green Revolution in 2009, and that he supported tough sanctions and a strong effort to stop the Iranian nuclear program. By naming a sanctions skeptic who also opposes the only other option to stop Iran from developing weapons of mass destruction to run the Pentagon, the future of the U.S. effort to contain Iran looks very much in doubt.
That should have supporters of Israel more worried than a remark about a "Jewish lobby" and a gay ambassador. In fact, it should have all of us worried about more than just Chuck Hagel, too, and prompt questions about Barack Obama's intentions on Iran and security in the Middle East.
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