WASHINGTON—Former Sen. Charles “Chuck” Hagel (R-Neb.), President Barack Obama’s choice for U.S. secretary of defense, is likely to be approved in the Senate next week, but John Brennan, nominee for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director, may have to wait.
The delays have been credited to concerns about both nominations, but the legitimacy of those concerns has been clouded by politics.
“Politics has been something of an issue during the recent confirmation hearings,” wrote Jennifer Marsico, senior research associate with the D.C.-based think tank American Enterprise Institute, in an email.
Marsico believes that there are legitimate areas of concern about both nominations.
“Concerns about Hagel and Brennan are understandable and valid,” she wrote. “For men who would be confirmed to extremely high national foreign policy and national security positions, it is crucial that they be vetted completely.”
Last week, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) conceded that politics has been a contributing factor in the delays. He said that there is a lot of “ill will” toward Hagel within Republican ranks. Hagel, also a Republican, criticized George W. Bush during his presidency and vocally opposed the U.S. troop surge in Iraq in 2007.
“He was anti-his own party and people—people don’t forget that,” McCain said on Fox News.
Republican senators have also used the nomination process as leverage to gain more information about the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens was killed. The Republicans believe that there has been an administration coverup, despite then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s insistence before a Senate hearing that there was no coverup.
Hagel, 67 years old and a recipient of two Purple Hearts from the Vietnam War, represented Nebraska in the Senate for two terms from 1996 to 2008. He is chairman of the Atlantic Council and co-chairman of the president’s Intelligence Advisory Board.
The Senate voted 58–40 in his support last Thursday—just two votes short of the 60 needed to secure the nomination and thwart a filibuster. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, realizing that Hagel did not have the numbers, switched his vote to “no” at the last minute, a move that allows him to bring up the vote again.
McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), both members of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, said that they will support Hagel’s nomination when the Senate resumes after recess next week.
“I’m confident that Sen. Hagel will probably have the votes necessary to be confirmed as secretary of defense,” McCain said Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Graham said that Hagel sent him a letter disavowing remarks he is reported to have made about Israel’s influence in the U.S. State Department.
“I will just take him at his word, unless something new comes along,” Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Graham described Hagel as “one of the most radical and unqualified choices” to be defense chief, but said that he would support Obama’s choice.
The Senate’s rejection of Hagel was the first time the nomination of a U.S. defense secretary has been filibustered.
Apart from the politics, lawmakers have raised a range of concerns about Hagel’s appointment. His past positions on issues in the Middle East have particularly rankled lawmakers. Hagel has been critical of aspects of Israel policy, has opposed some sanctions against Iran, and has proposed more lenient positions on Hezbollah and Hamas.
Others have questioned his managerial skills, with his appearance before a Senate confirmation hearing doing little to assuage concerns.
Looking exhausted, Hagel struggled to respond coherently to many questions, sometimes requiring prods from congressional members and once delivering a retraction.
When asked about Iran, Hagel initially said that he supported “the president’s strong position on containment,” even though Obama has rejected that as a policy.
After receiving a note, Hagel asked if he could make a correction to his response. “If I said that, I meant to say that obviously—his position on containment—we don’t have a position on containment.”
Despite his poor performance, Hagel has received strong endorsements. Former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Colin Powell both issued statements supporting his nomination, as has the No. 3 Democrat, and most senior Jewish senator, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Obama has indicated that he welcomes someone who will speak his or her mind.
“One of the reasons that the president chose Senator Hagel is because—is that he demonstrated the courage of his convictions in standing up to intense political opposition to articulate his concerns about the war in Iraq,” White House principle deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said in press briefing last week.
With firsthand experience of war, Hagel has made it clear that he is unlikely to rush America into military confrontations, but he is also unafraid to use strength when required.
Familiarity, too, with the needs of returning soldiers fits with Obama’s State of the Union announcement that 34,000 U.S. troops will be back from Afghanistan by February of next year.
With automatic spending cuts looming March 1, tackling cuts to the U.S. defense budget may be the biggest challenge, but Michael E. O’Hanlon, senior fellow in defense and director of foreign policy research with Washington’s Brookings Institution, believes that Hagel is up to the job.
“Hagel can bring some fresh thinking to the budget process,” he wrote.
While attention has been focused on Hagel, the nomination of Brennan as CIA director has also stalled over concerns about drone strikes. Brennan is presently Obama’s chief adviser on counterterrorism.
Chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said last week that she would delay a vote on Brennan’s confirmation until the last week in February. Sens. Graham, McCain, and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) have indicated that they are prepared to delay as much as they need to in order to extract further information about Benghazi and the changed talking points.
“When Brennan comes before the Congress, we’re going to find out who changed those talking points or die trying,” Graham said, according to Politico.
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