The Critique of Hagel

Experts worried about possible nomination of Chuck Hagel to defense secretary

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel / AP
December 6, 2012

Democrats and Republicans are expressing opposition to President Barack Obama’s possible selection of former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R., Nebr.) as the next secretary of defense.

Hagel, who is reported to be on Obama’s shortlist to head the Pentagon, has long raised red flags on Capitol Hill for his controversial foreign policy views, which include sharp criticism of Israel, supporting the elimination of America’s nuclear arsenal, and pushing for direct unconditional talks with Iran.

Hagel’s foreign policy views placed him in the minority of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle during his 12 years in the Senate. His recent work to strip the U.S. of its nuclear arsenal has isolated him even further.

Hagel’s ascension to the nation’s top defense post could imperil U.S. national security at a time when increased threats are emanating from a Middle East in flux, insiders warned.

This is the second time that Hagel has been placed on Obama’s shortlist for the post. It is believed that he "would be a comfortable ideological fit for the president," according to Foreign Policy magazine's Josh Rogin.

The White House’s 2010 effort to enlist Hagel drew outrage from Jewish leaders critical of Hagel’s stand on Israel. His current status as the frontrunner is no less controversial.

"It would be a very unwise and disastrous choice for U.S. policies and activities regarding the Middle East," said Morris Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

"You could probably consider him last in the class," Amitay said when asked to rate Hagel’s views on Israel. "He’s probably the worst."

Hagel’s efforts to open up direct negotiations with Iran and its terrorist proxy Hamas have placed him at odds with the pro-Israel community and the majority of Congress.

His legislative record reads like an anti-Israel rap sheet, sources said.

Hagel has declined to sign multiple letters of support for the Jewish state and has balked when presented with opportunities to condemn Tehran’s efforts to enrich uranium near levels needed to produce a nuclear weapon.

Key aides in the Senate are already indicating that Hagel would have a tough time winning approval from Congress should he be nominated.

"Chuck Hagel embodies the 'blame America first' approach to foreign policy," said one senior GOP Senate aide who would be involved in a possible confirmation process.

"He is anti-Israel and prefers a softer approach to Iran," the aide said. "If you wanted to carry out a full-scale American retreat from the world and sell out U.S. allies along the way, Chuck Hagel is the right man for the job."

Hagel was appointed in 2009 as a co-chair of Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board. That same year he lent his name to a letter urging the president to begin direct negotiations with Hamas, which is officially committed to Israel’s destruction.

His appointment drew a pointed response from pro-Israel Democrats.

"If [Hagel] was taking a policy role, we'd have real concerns," Ira Forman, former executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said at the time. Forman went on to serve as Obama’s Jewish outreach director during the 2012 presidential campaign.

The former Senator has gone to great lengths to distance himself from Israel.

"Let me clear something up here if there’s any doubt in your mind: I’m a United States Senator. I’m not an Israeli Senator. I’m a United States Senator," Hagel reportedly stated during a meeting with pro-Israel activists. "I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States. Not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel."

He backed-up this rhetoric on Capitol Hill.

Hagel was one of 12 Senators to abstain from signing a congressional letter in 2006 asking the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

The next year he voted against a measure aimed at designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) a terrorist organization.

Hagel voted against tightening sanctions on Iran multiple times during his tenure in the Senate and positioned himself as a vocal supporter of increased relations with Tehran.

Critics consider his approach toward Iran as dangerous, particularly as the regime inches closer to obtaining nuclear status.

"It’s not clear that somebody with as troubling a record on Iran as Sen. Chuck Hagel—someone who has reportedly urged direct unconditional and complete talks with a regime in Iran that wants none of these things—could be a productive diplomat or intelligence analyst," said one official with a leading Jewish organization.

Hagel has expanded his criticism to include the so-called "Jewish lobby."

"The political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here" on Capitol Hill, Hagel was quoted as saying by former State Department adviser Aaron David Miller in his 2008 book, The Too Much Promised Land. 

Anti-Israel groups have praised Hagel for his work to weaken the U.S. alliance with the Jewish state.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) awarded Hagel its "Outstanding Public Service Award" in 2008.

A favorite group of the Obama administration, the ADC has called Israel an "apartheid state" and once presented an award to the author of an essay titled, "Zionism is a Form of Racism."

Hagel’s efforts to abolish nuclear arms have also caused concerns among foreign policy observers who fear that further cuts to America’s nuclear arsenal could leave the country vulnerable to China, Russia, and other nuclear powers.

He has worked on behalf of Global Zero, an anti-nuclear organization that seeks to eliminate the U.S.’s intercontinental ballistic missile force and prevent America from responding to a nuclear strike for at least 24 to 72 hours.

"The nomination of Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense, should it happen, would mark a further, worrying leftward lurch of the Obama administration," said Frank Gaffney, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration.

"While Hagel used to be a Republican Senator, since he left office he has denounced the party and its leadership, endorsed Democrats for elective office and favors positions on issues from ridding the world of nuclear weapons to distancing the United States from Israel that are far more in tune with the Democrats' left wing than they are consistent with today's Republicans—and America's national security interests," said Gaffney, the founder and president of the Center for Security Policy.