Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., steps off the floor of the Senate Dec. 31 and takes a break from budget talks. Schumer said Jan. 15 he will support former Sen. Chuck Hagel for Defense secretary. (Paul J. Richards / AFP)
A key Jewish lawmaker announced Jan. 15 he will support Chuck Hagel’s nomination to become U.S. defense secretary after his concerns were assuaged during a one-on-one meeting, a sign Senate Democrats are aligning behind the nominee.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement that during a Jan. 14 meeting, Hagel “clarified a number of his past statements and positions and elaborated on several others.
“Based on several key assurances provided by Sen. Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation,” Schumer said of the former Nebraska Republican senator.
And in a big win for President Obama, Schumer’s statement included this key line: “I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.”
Several current and former Hagel aides contacted on Jan. 14 by Defense News said the nominee is perhaps at his best in one-on-one and small-group settings. They predicted he would be able to use that part of his personality to explain his past comments and current views, some of which concerned Schumer and others on Capitol Hill.
Hagel’s name was floated as the leading candidate to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in early December. But the Obama administration allowed Hagel to orbit Washington in what one source with knowledge of the situation called “nomination purgatory,” allowing critics to launch attacks for weeks.
The primary fuel for the attacks comes from a 2008 interview he gave to author Aaron David Miller in which the former 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.”
Hagel allegedly told Schumer he “regrets” those words.
Several sources close to Hagel noted Jan. 14 that only a few Republican senators have indicated definitively they would vote no on Hagel’s nomination.
One of the most stringent anti-Hagel Republican senators has been Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas. Cornyn flatly says he “will not support Chuck Hagel’s nomination to the Department of Defense [because] his record and past statements, particularly with respect to rogue nations like Iran, are extremely concerning to me.
“[Hagel’s] opposition to Iranian sanctions and support for direct, unconditional talks with its leaders is both at odds with current U.S. policy and a threat to global security. To make matters worse, he has called for direct negotiations with Hamas,” Cornyn said last week. “As Iran becomes increasingly hostile and gains influence in the region, the worst possible message we could send to our friend Israel and the rest of our allies in the Middle East is Chuck Hagel.”
Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also has indicated he plans to vote no on Hagel, whom he called an “in-your-face” nominee.
Hagel’s past comments concern pro-Israel senators and organizations, and also proponents of using U.S. military force against Iran to halt its nuclear-arms ambitions. So, too, were past comments by Hagel endorsing bilateral talks and seeming to oppose the use of some sanctions, which the Obama administration has made the cornerstone of its Iran policy.
“On Iran, Sen. Hagel rejected a strategy of containment and expressed the need to keep all options on the table in confronting that country. But he didn’t stop there,” Schumer said of the meeting. “In our conversation, Sen. Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force. He said his ‘top priority’ as secretary of defense would be the planning of military contingencies related to Iran.”
On the sanctions comments, Schumer said Hagel “clarified that he ‘completely’ supports President Obama’s current sanctions against Iran [and] added that further unilateral sanctions against Iran could be effective and necessary.”
On the issues of how to treat Israel’s top foes, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, the New York senator said Hagel “assured me that he today believes there should be no negotiations with Hamas, Hezbollah or any other terrorist group until they renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.”
What’s more, Hagel indicated he “has always” been a supporter of Israel’s “right” to use military force if attacked by either group, according to the statement.
On joint weapon programs and “keeping with our promises to help equip Israel,” as Schumer put it, the nominee said he would “work towards the on-time delivery of the F-35 … to Israel, continue the cooperation between Israel and the U.S. on Iron Dome, and recommend to the president that we refuse to join in any NATO exercises if Turkey should continue to insist on excluding Israel from them.”
Hagel has made clear he is not an Israeli senator, but he told Schumer he “believes Israel must maintain its qualitative military edge.”
Finally, Schumer, anticipating what some will see as political flip-flopping by a nominee seeking votes, attempted to pour cold water on any such allegations.
“I know some will question whether Sen. Hagel’s assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post. But I don’t think so,” Schumer said. “Sen. Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago. His views are genuine, and reflect this new reality.”