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Former Republican Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel may no longer be President Obama's favored pick to run the Defense Department, sources told the Free Beacon.
Hagel immediately drew a frosty reception from observers who criticized him for advocating in favor of direct unconditional talks with Iran and for backing sizable cuts to the defense budget.
Those who have worked with Hagel and have an intimate knowledge of his managerial style also expressed concerns about his possible appointment.
Sources on Capitol Hill told the Free Beacon that opposition to Hagel reaches all the way to the Embassy of Israel, which is said to have quietly expressed concern about the former senator.
“Our office has talked with the Israel embassy who says their policy is to support whatever the president wants in his cabinet and would not provide further comment,” one Senate aide told the Free Beacon. “With a little prodding, our contact at the embassy did allude to their concern for Hagel's nomination.”
An Israeli embassy spokesman declined comment.
Hagel has drawn additional heat from insiders who claim he lacks the credentials needed to manage a department as large and essential as the Pentagon.
"Yes, Hagel has crazy positions on several key issues. Yes, Hagel has said things that are borderline anti-Semitism. Yes, Hagel wants to gut the Pentagon's budget. But above all, he's not a nice person and he's bad to his staff,” said a senior Republican Senate aide who has close ties to former Hagel staffers.
“Hagel was known for turning over staff every few weeks—within a year's time he could have an entirely new office because nobody wanted to work for him,” said the source. “You have to wonder how a man who couldn't run a Senate office is going to be able to run an entire bureaucracy.”
Others familiar with Hagel’s 12 year tenure in the Senate said he routinely intimidated staff and experienced frequent turnover.
“Chuck Hagel may have been collegial to his Senate colleagues but he was the Cornhusker wears Prada to his staff, some of whom describe their former boss as perhaps the most paranoid and abusive in the Senate, one who would rifle through staffers desks and berate them for imagined disloyalty,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq. “He might get away with that when it comes to staffers in their 20s, but that sort of personality is going to go over like a ton of bricks at the Pentagon.”
Multiple sources corroborated this view of Hagel.
“As a manager, he was angry, accusatory, petulant,” said one source familiar with his work on Capitol Hill. “He couldn’t keep his staff.”
“I remember him accusing one of his staffers of being ‘f—ing stupid’ to his face,” recalled the source who added that Hagel typically surrounded himself with those “who basically hate Republicans.”
Sources expressed concern about such behavior should Hagel be nominated for the defense post. With competing military and civilian interests vying for supremacy, the department requires a skilled manager, sources said.
“The Pentagon requires strong civilian control,” a senior aide to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Free Beacon. “It's already swung back in favor of the military over the past five years. A new secretary of defense should push it back in its rightful place, but it’s doubtful Hagel would be that guy.”
“It's not clear that [Hagel] has the standing, the managerial prowess, or the willingness to gore some oxen,” said the source.
One senior Bush administration official warned that Hagel is ill informed about many critical foreign policy matters.
"He's not someone who's shown a lot of expertise on these issues," said the source, referencing a recent Washington Post editorial excoriating Hagel's record. "That [op-ed] was extraordinary."
"Only in Washington," the official added, "can someone like [Hagel] be seen as a heavy weight. He's not the sharpest knife in the drawer."
Hagel is likely viewed positively by the administration mainly because he is a Republican who often criticizes his own party, the source said.
"He'll dance to a tune played by the White House," said the former official. "That I think is the real problem."
As lawmakers consider a deal to avoid sweeping budgets cuts and tax hikes, Hagel’s support for slashing spending at the Pentagon has irked many defense hawks.
“This is a time when a secretary of defense needs to be raising hell about the sequestration cuts,” said the Rumsfeld aide. “It's not clear that Hagel has any interest in picking that fight.”
Hagel’s reluctance to chastise Iran also remains a central concern.
As chief of the Pentagon it is expected he would avoid planning for a military intervention should Tehran refuse to end its clandestine nuclear enrichment program.
“The military brass is already reluctant to offer up any military options on Iran even though it's their job to have something on the books and to leave the options of the commander in chief open,” said the Rumsfeld aide. “Hagel will only reinforce these worrisome tendencies.”
“Chances are he'll view any legitimate effort to talk about military options with Iran as some plot by the ‘Israel Lobby' to box him in,” the source said.
Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, is currently viewed as the frontrunner for the post.
“She will be the likely candidate as there has been criticism from liberals for possibly replacing a female secretary of state with a male, and [Flournoy would be] the first woman secretary of defense,” said one senior Senate aide with knowledge of the process. “Hagel could have been a test by the president—if Hagel's positions could be supported then likely so would Flournoy.”