With former Sen. Chuck Hagel preparing for confirmation hearings for the top job at the Pentagon, the issue of personnel costs is getting new attention. (Junko Kimura / Getty Images)
Chuck Hagel once seemed a widely respected former GOP senator and emerging thought leader on defense and national security issues who would cruise through the confirmation process if tapped for a Cabinet post. That’s no longer the case, and some senators say the Obama White House is dropping the ball.
When Susan Rice withdrew from consideration to be secretary of state on Dec. 13, the conventional wisdom in Washington political and national security circles was the move would pave the way for Hagel to become defense secretary. Insiders were nearly certain late that Rice’s exit would clear the way for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to be tapped as the next secretary of state. That would take the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman out of the defense secretary race and open the door for Hagel to join President Obama’s Cabinet.
Eight days later, the White House has yet to send any national security or foreign policy nominees to the Senate. And into the cone of silence since Rice’s withdrawal have swooped Hagel critics attacking his views on Israel.
The fuel for the attacks comes from a 2008 interview he gave to author Aaron David Miller in which the former Nebraska senator said “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” He noted, as a senator, he never recalled signing policy letters sent around Capitol Hill by AIPAC, a leading pro-Israel advocacy organization because “I’m a United States senator … not an Israeli senator.”
Other criticisms of a possible Hagel nomination, on broader policy grounds, have come from widely respected groups. For instance, the influential Washington Post editorial board this week pointed out Hagel’s views on a list of major issues “fall well to the left” of those Obama pursued during his in first term.
Hagel supporters have since fired back, but some in Washington wonder whether too much damage has been done for Obama to tap him for a Cabinet post.
Lawmakers, in a series of interviews, agreed the administration’s practice of publicly floating Hagel’s name as a possible nominee only to leave him in limbo was eerily similar to Rice’s own experience whereher Senate GOP detractors were allowed to brutally criticize her for weeks.
Had the White House moved faster to formally nominate Hagel, would it have blunted some of those attacks and negative critiques? Some members think so.
“At some point, they just need to decide. I mean, they just float these names out there without formally nominating them,” said Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who is seen as a possible 2016 GOP presidential candidate.
“Until they nominate them, it’s hard for [the White House] to defend them,” Thune told Defense News. “And then, all their critics come to the forefront. I think they’re going to have to re-examine how they’re doing this.”
Asked if the White House’s float-and-wait approach is different than employed by previous administrations, Thune replied: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of thought put into it.”
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., agrees, saying the White House is using “an interesting approach of public vetting by trial balloons.”
“If I was a nominee I would hope the process would not work that way,” Blount said in a brief interview. “And for people that might be nominees, I feel bad that they’re put out there but not surrounded by any support system other than ‘let’s just see what happens’.”
The senator who would oversee any nomination process for a nominee to take over for Leon Panetta at the Defense Department, Democratic Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan offered a different view.
“Oh, I think they’re going through a normal kind of, not vetting process, but a deliberate process,” Levin said.
Asked if the White House needs to move faster to ensure their nominees have the full weight of the administration behind them in the face of inevitable criticisms, Levin replied: “I’m sure they’re moving as fast as they can.”
Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, the outgoing SASC ranking member, agreed.
“It always goes like this,” McCain said.
There are increasing signs that Hagel would need some Republican votes to be confirmed by the full Senate.
Members interviewed Dec. 20 largely split along party lines, ironically with Democrats voicing support for the former GOP lawmaker and Republicans raising red flags.
“Chuck was a neighbor in Nebraska and a friend, so I think we’ve got to give him the deference, as a former fellow-senator, that he deserves,” Thune said. “I do think as many of my colleagues have stated, if he does get nominated, during the confirmation process there are positions and statements that he’ll have to answer questions about … particularly some of the more sensitive ones in terms of foreign policy. I think that’s a natural part of the process.”
But perhaps the best evidence of an uphill fight was voiced by McCain, who in a 2008 interview suggested Hagel would have been a good pick for Obama’s first-term Cabinet.
At that time, McCain said they were “close and dear friends” who simply reached different conclusions about the Iraq conflict. Hagel in 2006 wrote an op-ed panning the George W. Bush administration’s troop surge and questioning the wisdom of staying in that war; McCain was a surge supporter and opposed Obama’s decision to remove all U.S. forces from Iraq.
In the same 2008 interview, McCain called Hagel a “respected leader in America” who “served his country admirably, with honor and distinction.”
But McCain sounded a much different tone Dec. 20 in a brief interview with Defense News when asked if he would support Hagel for defense secretary.
“I would wait until he’s nominated and examine things,” McCain said. “There are some disagreements that we’ve had over the years. I would examine his nomination and give him an opportunity — but I certainly haven’t decided.”