Louis S Keepen writes from Washington: President Obama has nominated Chuck Hagel, a one time soldier and then Republican Senator from Nebraska to be Secretary of Defence.
Hagel comes from the no-prisoners school of politics and has a tough Vietnam rep’s history as his starting point. Famously, Hagel, then Sergeant Hagel, single-handedly rescued his brother after hitting a landmine. As President Obama put it, ‘More than most, Chuck understands that war is not just an abstraction.’
Hagel’s nomination completes the trio of would-be appointments of a nation at war. He joins John O Brennan as the new Director of the CIA and Senator John Kerry as a proposed replacement of Hillary Clinton at the State Department. The three suggest a formidable security team with practical experience in the field, in the Executive and on the Hill. Trying times are ahead as the United States begins its Afghanistan withdrawal, sensitive decisions over Syria and maybe Iran plus assaults from the Department of the Treasury.
Brennan and Kerry are safe choices. Hagel is a tougher second guess. He is the one Congress will take apart during confirmation hearings. Republican senators in particular are wary of his views on Iran, Islamic militants and Israel – all subjects that can split Congressional views anyway.
In Washington even apparently innocent at the time long ago remarks are pulled out of the record to confront those going for the big jobs. Moreover, remarks or definitions that would not necessarily excite Georgetown diners are used as ammunition to shoot down public ambitions. For example, Jewish support organisations suggest that he is vulnerable because he once called pro-Israel groups ‘the Jewish lobby.’
More politically vulnerable say the same people is Hagel’s past doubts about American sanctions on Iran. There are two issues here: what to do about Iran’s nuclear programme and secondly, does a vote against sanctions reflect a lack of support for the Israelis?
Hagel appears unconcerned about Israeli sensitivities. He has also suggested the possible peace advantages of opening even backstairs talks with Hamas and Hezbollah.
The Obama team is totally aware that some in Congress stack against the Hagel nomination. Yet it is not clear how powerful the anti-Hagel lobby has to be to stop him. Instead he may run through a barbed wire of questioning in the hope that his present mood and view will ease concerns if not totally satisfy the opposition.
The Iranian sanction issue– designed to punish Iran for going ahead with its suspected nuclear weapons programme – remains the most vulnerable area for Chuck Hagel. It does so because he voted against them when they were debated in the Senate.
The word is that this issue in particular has been dealt with in the White House. Hagel as Secretary of Defence has no vote anywhere, but Obama would not expect him to sound off, even in private, on any subject that could embarrass the White House. In theory, but only in theory, Hagel would not frighten the Oval Office horses.
The Congressional hearings will therefore seek to ‘clarify’ Hagel’s views on about everything. If there’s to be a quiet route to his nomination, Hagel has to clean up his act. He is not by nature, an act cleaner. So Obama is taking a risk with these three men because he trusts them. In his second term with big issues such as Afghanistan, Syria and the Arab Spring plus relations with China and Russia on the table, that trust has to be well placed.
Can Obama trust Hagel? He should know the answer to that. Hagel was one of the men who escorted Obama to Afghanistan back in 2008 in an attempt to put street cred on Obama’s foreign policy ticket. It worked. It’s now up to Congress to allow the double-act to get back on stage.