A Divisive Choice

Opposition mounts to potential nomination of Chuck Hagel to Defense

December 19, 2012

Opposition to the potential nomination of former Nebraska Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as the nation’s next defense secretary continues to mount.

Senior senators and several high profile Jewish community groups have gone on record in recent days expressing concern about Hagel’s stance towards Israel, Iran, and a slew of other critical foreign policy issues.

The Free Beacon reported Wednesday that mounting resistance to the possible nomination of Hagel may be leading President Barack Obama to consider an alternative choice, mainly former undersecretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy.

Venerable Jewish community organizations have also weighed in on Hagel this week.

American Jewish Committee (AJC) chief David Harris is the latest to strike out against Hagel’s record on Israel.

"The first AJC encounter with Sen. Hagel I recall was when we sought his support in 1999 for a Senate letter to then Russian President Boris Yeltsin urging action against rising anti-Semitism," Harris recalled in a statement to the Washington Post Wednesday afternoon. "We were unsuccessful. On June 20, 1999, we published the letter as a full-page ad in the New York Times with 99 Senate signatories. Only Sen. Hagel’s name was absent."

"Our concern then has only grown since, as we have witnessed his stance on a range of core U.S. national security priorities," Harris continued. "A number of his documented positions, in fact, have been contrary to the Obama administration’s to date—on Iran sanctions, on a credible military option against Iran, on Hezbollah as a terrorist group, on the special nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship, etc."

"Against that backdrop, what message would the president be sending if he opted to go ahead with such a nomination?" Harris asked.

The Emergency Committee for Israel released an advertisement Tuesday highlighting what it says is Hagel’s concerning rhetoric on Iran.

"Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel," an announcer states in the ad. "President Obama says he supports Iran sanctions. Hagel voted against them. Hagel voted against labeling Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist group."

The ad will run on cable news stations Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN in the coming days, according to Politico.

The Anti-Defamation League also cited Hagel for what it said are his disturbing beliefs about the so-called "Jewish lobby."

"Chuck Hagel would not be the first, second, or third choice for the American Jewish community’s friends of Israel," Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, told the Washington Post earlier this week. "His record relating to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship is, at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling."

"The sentiments he’s expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism in the genre of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and former president Jimmy Carter," Foxman added.

Additionally, Christians United for Israel (CUFI) moved against Hagel late Wednesday, expressing worry about what they say is Hagel's soft approach towards Iran.

"During his time in the Senate, Senator Hagel consistently refused to support meaningful action against Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s terrorist Revolutionary Guard, and Iran’s chief puppet, Hezbollah," David Brog, CUFI's executive director, said in a statement. "I’ve not yet heard a convincing explanation for such passivity towards this looming strategic threat. On this state of the record, I don’t think that Senator Hagel is the right person to lead the Department of Defense."

Top Senate Republicans have also claimed they will fight their former colleague’s nomination.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) stated that he "strongly disagree[s]" with Hagel's comments regarding the supposed Jewish lobby, according to the Weekly Standard.

"I know of no ‘Jewish lobby,’" McCain reportedly added. "I know that there’s strong support for Israel here. I know of no ‘Jewish lobby.’ I hope he would identify who that is."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) told the Standard that Hagel will "have to answer for that comment" about the Jewish lobby should he face nomination hearings on Capitol Hill.

"And he’ll have to answer about why he thought it was a good idea to directly negotiate with Hamas and why he objected to the European Union declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization," Graham added.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) echoed the sentiments of McCain and Graham regarding Hagel’s beliefs in a Jewish lobby.

Concerns about Hagel have also centered on his ability to manage effectively a complex entity such as the Pentagon.

Those who have worked with Hagel recalled him as confrontational and prickly.

"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," Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq, told the Free Beacon on Wednesday. "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."

Others maintained Hagel does not have the expertise to control competing factions within the Defense Department.

However, former Hagel staffer Daniel Archer reached out to the Free Beacon late Wednesday to both praise Hagel and recount his "tough" demeanor.

"I found the man to be of great character and integrity. Was he a tough boss? Hell yeah. Did he challenge me? Very much so," said Archer, who served as Hagel’s legislative director from 2001 to 2004. "But he made me a better staffer and a better man and I carry the traits I learned while working for him to this day."

Archer disputed several accounts of Hagel as acting erratic and overly hostile.

"He was demanding boss. He expected when a memo reached his desk it was well thought out, well written and took into consideration all angles," Archer wrote in an email. "He would ask tough questions during staff meetings, he would challenge you in front of others. These are not bad things and not uncommon traits in bosses who perform at high levels."

Archer also said that attacks calling Hagel anti-Semitic are unfair.

"Hagel is by no means an anti-Semite," he said. "I never ever heard him say one bad thing about the Jewish people or its faith. Period."

While Hagel still remains a contender for the Pentagon post, sources said Flournoy may have become a more attractive candidate as attacks on Hagel gain steam.

"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," one Senate aide with knowledge of the process told the Free Beacon Wednesday. "Hagel could have been a test by the president—if Hagel’s positions could be supported then likely so would Flournoy."

"The Embassy of Israel looks forward to working with the next Secretary of Defense," the embassy of Israel in a statement to the Free Beacon. "Under the Obama administration, security relations between the U.S and Israel have been, in the words of Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, 'closer than ever,' and we have every confidence that those relations will continue to grow."