General Colin Powell endorses Chuck Hagel for 24th Secretary of Defense

If Colin Powell likes Hagel, House GOP leader Eric Cantor does not. Worse, neither does John McCain. And neither do gays. What's going on here? Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, DC, January 7, 2013 — President Obama nominated former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE, 1997-2009) as Secretary of Defense today, at the same time announcing his decision to nominate White House counterterrorism advisor John Brennan to lead the CIA.

Hagel, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran and two-time recipient of the Purple Heart, was endorsed by General Colin Powell. Powell released a statement saying:

“Chuck Hagel has been a friend and colleague of mine for over twenty years. … Chuck displays his courage in many ways. You can always count on him to analyze a difficult situation and take a position that reflects his best judgment. I believe that more than ever we need that kind of independent and bold leader who thinks in and out of the box. He is the kind of leader needed by the Department of Defense to deal with the strategic and resource challenges it will be facing over the next several years.”

In his announcement today, Obama declared, “Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve.” He characterized Hagel as a Pentagon Chief who, as a decorated Vietnam War veteran, can “stand up” to generals during the challenges ahead. Among those challenges will be trimming $487 billion from the Pentagon budget over the next ten years, a number that could double if the White House and Congress can’t reach a deal to avoid sequestration in March.

If confirmed, Hagel will succeed Leon Panetta as Defense Secretary. Panetta, who took up the post in July 2011, had announced his intention to leave the position this year.

President Obama and Senator Hagel served in the Senate together, and Hagel has a working relationship with the president forged during that time. They traveled together to Iraq in 2008, and Hagel has always held Obama in high public esteem. He defended Obama from campaign attacks in 2008 and declined to back Senator John McCain in his race against Obama. In this year’s presidential campaign, he criticized the Republican candidates for being too eager to bomb Iran.

Hagel is known to be extremely cautious about military intervention, a point of view he shares with Obama. After voting to authorize the invasion of Iraq, he became strongly critical of the war. He’s supportive of Obama’s desire to leave Afghanistan as quickly as possible, and said after Osama bin Laden was killed that Obama must “start heading toward the exits.”

Hagel’s Vietnam stories, including his service with his brother, Tom, whose life he saved following a land mine explosion, are well known. In a 2002 interview, Senator Hagel said, “War is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, call upon to settle a dispute.”

This nomination comes with some controversy concerning Hagel’s anti-war sentiments, opposition to the troop surge in Iraq, and his use of the term “Jewish lobby” and comments about its Washington influence. Conservative senators have expressed reservations about his views towards Israel. At the same time, the Democratic left opposes Hagel for comments he made about gays serving openly in the military.

With two terms in the Senate, Hagel brings some much needed inside-the-beltway experience to the Obama team, as well as a bit of bipartisanship. Vice President Joe Biden’s ability to negotiate a fiscal cliff deal with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnel after Obama failed with House Speaker Boehner may have convinced the President that he needs that type of “insider” in this position.

Panetta, while serving as Clinton’s Chief of Staff and CIA director, did not have the benefit of those Capitol Hill relations that may serve Obama and Hagel well in addressing upcoming military budget issues. Obama hasn’t had the best relationship with the military, and Hagel would be a valuable ally there. He would be able to propel Obama’s agenda while assuring his former colleagues that proposed cuts to the defense budget are not only necessary, but that they can be achieved without damaging America’s national defense.

In his years in Congress, Hagel served on the Senate Foreign Relations, Banking and Intelligence committees, all of which will give him the credentials he needs to guide the Obama Administration’s Defense Department budgets through Congress. His work on the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs gives him crucial knowledge of an area of the world vital to American interests.

Senators usually give deference to former Senators in confirmation hearings, but not always. Senator John Tower was nominated by President George H.W. Bush as his Defense Secretary in 1989, but Tower was repudiated by his former Senate colleagues. That’s unusual, and Obama must be hoping that both Hagel and Senator John Kerry will be easily confirmed to the Cabinet. After having to back down on Susan Rice, he may have decided he has no choice but to go forward with Hagel anyway. 

It may not be as easy as Obama hopes. Like Tower, Hagel has managed to antagonize a number of key senators, including John McCain, whom Hagel did not support in 2008, going so far as to say that McCain’s vice-presidential pick, Sarah Palin, lacked necessary foreign policy credentials. McCain has already announced that Hagel’s positions on Israel are a cause for concern.

So has Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC), who is quoted as saying that Hagel would be “the most antagonistic secretary of defense towards the state of Israel in our nation’s history.” With an ACU rating of 85 (anything over 80 is considered “reliably conservative”), Hagel has a reputation for being moderate and not sufficiently hawkish for conservative Republicans.

Hagel’s problems with conservatives were spelled out by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who said: “The nomination of a man known primarily for opposing sanctions and military action against Iran strongly suggests that all options are not on the table. Hagel’s nomination telegraphs weakness in the Middle East and defeatism in Afghanistan, where our Afghan partners will surely be concerned, and our Taliban and Iranian adversaries will surely be emboldened … There has been widespread and bipartisan opposition to this potential nomination, and the President’s willingness to move forward despite these concerns only reinforces the signal that he agrees with Hagel’s extreme positions.”

Liberal opponents have reached back to 1998 to criticize Hagel for anti-gay remarks, for which he has since apologized. Bringing these remarks up now, some fourteen years later, seems disingenuous, as even President Obama has publicly changed his position on gay rights and marriage in that time.

In his remarks today, Obama said that Hagel would “be the first person of enlisted rank to serve as secretary of defense, one of the few secretaries who’ve been wounded in war, and the first Vietnam veteran to lead the department.”

If he is confirmed, Hagel will need to address issues ranging from cyber warfare to the Middle-East and China. He will need to work with four-star generals on withdrawing troops from Afghanistan and on budgetary challenges. 


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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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