Allegations that Chuck Hagel, President Obama's pick for U.S. defense secretary, is anti-semitic, unwilling to confront Iran and too reluctant to unleash America's military might are refuted by his past votes and statements, a number of former aides say. (AFP)
Allegations that Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s pick for U.S. defense secretary, is anti-semitic, unwilling to confront Iran and too reluctant to unleash America’s military might are refuted by his past votes and statements, a number of former aides say.
Republican senators and pro-Israel groups, since early December, have been slamming Hagel and charging he should be disqualified over past comments he has made about Washington’s closest Middle East ally and the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
“I was shocked by the charges that [Hagel] is anti-semitic,” a former Hagel foreign policy adviser told Defense News. “All anyone has to do is look at his voting record on things like defense assistance to Israel [and] financial support to Israel to see [the allegations] have been proven not to be grounded in fact and truth.
“Whether or not he signed a letter had very little bearing on what Sen. Hagel’s views are on Israel or any other policy issue,” said the former foreign policy aide, a four-year veteran of Hagel’s Senate office.
Beth Sanzone, who worked for Hagel from 2000-2004, told Defense News the policy-based critiques lobbed against her boss in recent weeks are “unfortunate and unfounded.” She dubbed them “one-liners” that have been “taken totally out of context.”
The main basis of the political attacks is a 2008 interview Hagel conducted with author Aaron David Miller, during which the former senator said, “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here.” Hagel 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.”
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn of Texas quickly announced he would oppose Hagel. Senate Armed Services Committee member Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called Hagel an “in-your-face” pick and strongly denounced the nomination. And Hagel’s longtime friend, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told Defense News in late December he is unsure whether he will support Hagel.
Hagel’s comments ignited a firestorm in Washington after they surfaced in the weeks after the White House in early December floated his name as a potential nominee. One group that is aggressively opposing Hagel is called the Emergency Committee for Israel, which has even set up a special anti-Hagel website that pans him issue by issue. That site urges visitors to “tell your senators Chuck Hagel is too extreme to be secretary of defense.”
In an interview last week with a Nebraska newspaper, Hagel defended himself, declaring his “unequivocal, total support for Israel.” Former senior U.S. diplomats and national security officials have in recent weeks endorsed his nomination.
Now, nearly 10 former Hagel staffers, in a series of separate conversations with Defense News, say the anti-Israel — and other policy-based critiques — are inaccurate.
Four of the former aides stressed that during their tenures in Hagel’s office the boss visited Israel multiple times.
“He had deep conversations with Olmert and Sharon on those trips,” the foreign policy aide said, referring to former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon. “Just look at what he has said in foreign policy speeches about the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel. … People need to pause for a moment and take a look at what he has always said and done.”
Sanzone said Hagel’s record shows he “has always been a strong supporter of Israel, and worked to strengthen the relationship.” She added Hagel “made three visits to Israel when I worked in the office.”
She also said Hagel’s stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one of “no compromising — there should not be a unilateral Palestinian state.”
GOP senators and pro-Israeli groups also have charged that Hagel’s views on Iran are too soft for a U.S. defense secretary at a time when experts say Washington will have to do something to halt Tehran’s nuclear arms program.
“Sen. Hagel is very aware of the realities on Iran,” Sanzone said. “His point has been that unilateral sanctions wouldn’t work, and that any sanctions against Iran should be multilateral in shape.”
Sanzone and other aides pointed out that the Obama administration has enacted a sanctions regime that includes the participation of other nations, demonstrating that Hagel’s preferred Iran strategy is in line with President Obama’s.
Critics also allege Hagel’s past comments and writings show he is too reluctant to use U.S. military force to be one of the commander in chief’s top national security advisers.
But former aides were quick to rebut such charges, noting their former boss saw heavy combat in the Vietnam War. In fact, he still has shrapnel in his chest from that conflict. That controversial war left him, they say, with a view that America should only go to war when no solution can be found using diplomatic, economic and other tools.
“As far as his philosophy on using American power, he is a principled realist. He is not … against the use of American military power,” said one source who was Hagel’s research and teaching assistant during his post-Senate career at Georgetown University. “He just wants to make sure if we do use the military, we know exactly what we’re getting into.”
To that end, some scholars place Hagel’s use-of-force philosophy in line with former President George H.W. Bush and members of his national security team, such as Brent Scrowcroft, who was national security adviser to the elder Bush and former President Gerald Ford.
The Georgetown source said Hagel’s force philosophy stems from Hagel’s Vietnam experiences and from a another personal root: “He cares so deeply about troops and vets — he wouldn’t want to put people in harm’s way unless it’s worth it.”
The conversations with the former Hagel aides were spurred by a request issued on Jan. 14 by a Defense News reporter, via Twitter, asking former Senate aides who had worked closely with Hagel to reach out via email.
That request was prompted by comments on ABC’s “This Week” program by Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., charging former Hagel aides had raised concerns about their former boss being too temperamental for the top Pentagon job.
Nearly 10 former Hagel aides, many of whom worked for Hagel for at least three years, contacted Defense News. While the conversations focused mostly on Hagel’s temperament and treatment of staffers, his policy views also were discussed.
In a series of telephone interviews conducted Jan. 14-16, each former staffer passionately defended their former boss, and harshly criticized his former GOP colleagues and the issue groups attempting to derail his nomination.
Sources say Hagel plans to meet with key pro-Israel senators to discuss the anti-semitic allegations. He already met with and secured the endorsement of Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., considered a key Jewish lawmaker.
In a statement following the meeting, Schumer said, “based on several key assurances provided by Sen. Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation.” In a big win for President Obama, Schumer’s statement said he encourages his “Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.”
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.”
Former aides were not surprised to learn their former boss had won over Schumer, and were quick to answer “yes” or “absolutely” when asked if they believed he would assuage senators’ concerns as he meets one-on-one with them ahead of his Jan. 31 Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing.
In one-on-one settings, “there’s nobody better,” said Tom Janssen, who did two stints under then-Sen. Hagel. “He’s a very good listener, and he studies hard. He’s going to know a lot about their concerns. He’s going to listen to them and answer them based on what he feels and believes.”
——— Editor’s Note: This is the second of two articles based on a series of conversations with nearly 10 former aides to Chuck Hagel, who is President Obama’s nominee to become defense secretary. Please click here for the first installment and other items from the Defense News staff’s coverage of the fight over Hagel’s nomination.