On Friday, President Barack Obama officially nominated Massachusetts US Senator John Kerry to become the next secretary of state. With UN ambassador Susan Rice rescinding her name from consideration, the Bay State’s senior senator became the favorite to succeed the outgoing Hillary Clinton.
The next big cabinet appointment will likely be for secretary of defense. Although he has not officially been nominated, former US Senator Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska, is said to be on the president’s short list to lead the Pentagon.
While Kerry’s name as a possible alternative to Rice was embraced by Republicans, with John McCain jokingly referring to Kerry as “Mr. Secretary,” Hagel’s prospective nomination has been greeted with derision from both sides; most notably from his own party.
Groups like the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT advocacy group, have recently latched onto a statement Hagel made in 1998 about James Hormel, an open homosexual and nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg. The Senator said:
“[Ambassadors] are representing America. . . . They are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay – openly, aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel – to do an effective job.”
Hagel has since apologized for these remarks.
Another quote from Hagel’s past that is receiving scrutiny comes from an interview in Aaron David Miller‘s 2008 book, The Much Too Promised Land:
“When someone would accuse him of not being pro-Israel because he didn’t sign [an AIPAC] letter, Hagel told me he responds: ‘I didn’t sign the letter because it was a stupid letter.’ . . . Hagel is a strong supporter of Israel and a believer in shared values. ‘The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,’ but as he put it, ‘I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.’”
Hagel’s use of the words “Jewish lobby” irked some Democratic Senators. Bob Casey (D-PA) said, “Any comment that undermines our relationship [with Israel] concerns me.” Michigan’s Carl Levin backed away from this particular statement while still generally supporting Hagel.
However, Hagel’s confirmation vulnerability may come from his own party where, as a Senator, he questioned the Cuba trade embargo, opposed the counterinsurgency strategy of 2007-08, and voted against sanctions against Iran.
Out of government, Hagel has already served on President Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board and endorsed Democratic senatorial candidates Joe Sestak and Bob Kerrey over Republicans considered conservative.
In an op-ed in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Congressman-elect Tom Cotton (R-AK) laid out the case against Hagel:
“His record on Iraq alone should disqualify the former senator from leading US troops in time of war. . . .
“In the Senate, he helped in early 2007 to delay emergency funding for the war. He then voted for a measure to force withdrawal from Iraq. . . .
“Unlike the current secretary of defense, Mr. Hagel seems willing to accept devastating cuts to defense spending, calling the US military ‘bloated’ and in need of being ‘pared down.’ He also has expressed a desire to accelerate the troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
Referring to Hagel’s objection to the half-century old Cuba trade embargo, which he calls “outdated, unrealistic” and “irrelevant,” Florida US Senator Marco Rubio, a son of Cuban immigrants, said through a spokesman that he is “threatening to place a hold” on Hagel’s confirmation.
The Emergency Committee for Israel, a 501(c)(4) organization co-founded by the Weekly Standard‘s Bill Kristol, is airing a cable TV ad entitled “Not An Option,” because the former Senator voted against sanctions against Iran and said “military action is not a viable, feasible, responsible action.”
If he is confirmed, Hagel would be the second Republican to serve the post during the Obama administration. If he serves until the end of Obama’s term it would also mark six years of Republican leadership at the Pentagon in a Democratic administration.
On first glance, Hagel’s nomination to the defense department would seem uncontroversial. He is a Republican, a veteran, served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and currently serves as the co-chairman of the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
At his confirmation hearing, Hagel’s independent streak would come to the front: questioning the GOP’s conventional wisdom on Iraq, Iran, Israel, and Cuba. Although some Democrats have their own qualms about Chuck Hagel, his potential nomination is stirring passions among his own party that may portend a political battle.