A NEW showdown is looming between Barack Obama and Republican legislators over the US president’s choice of the controversial Republican former senator Chuck Hagel to be his next secretary of defence.
• John Brennan is currently Obama’s top counter-terrorism chief
• Chuck Hagel nominated for defense secretary, replacing the outgoing Leon Panetta
• Obama considered Brennan for CIA chief in 2008, but Brennan withdrew his name amid questions over his connection to enhanced interrogation techniques
The Vietnam War veteran’s nomination, formally announced by Mr Obama yesterday during the same briefing in which he proposed homeland security adviser John Brennan as the new head of the CIA, was greeted with dismay by several of Mr Hagel’s former colleagues.
One of the most vocal was senior Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who said that Mr Hagel’s voting record during his 12 years representing Nebraska in the US Senate, and his perceived anti-Israel bias, would make for a bumpy ride during upcoming confirmation hearings in Washington, DC.
“This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel,” Mr Graham said in a television interview. “I think it’s an incredibly controversial choice. Chuck Hagel would be the most antagonistic secretary of defence towards the state of Israel in our nation’s history.”
Mr Obama nominated another Vietnam veteran, Democrat senator John Kerry, to replace Hillary Clinton, who had long said she would step down after four years as secretary of state.
Announcing Mr Hagel’s nomination yesterday, the US president said: “Chuck represents the bipartisan tradition we need more of in Washington.
“In the Senate I came to admire his willingness to speak his mind, even if it wasn’t popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom. That’s exactly the spirit I want on my national security team, a recognition that when it comes to the defence of our country we are not Democrats or Republicans, we are Americans.”
However, one senior Democrat senator said yesterday there was “no guarantee” Mr Hagel would be confirmed and that enough Democrats were concerned to put him “well short” of the 50 Senate votes he needs.
Several Washington insiders believe Mr Obama chose Mr Hagel, 66, to give a more bipartisan feel to the recent overhaul of his cabinet and homeland security team. But early indications are that the move could backfire, with politicians on both sides unhappy with the nomination.
Mr Hagel has been outspoken over Israel, saying in 2007 he believed the “Jewish lobby intimidated lawmakers”, which angered pro-Israeli colleagues.
He also opposed unilateral sanctions on Iran, refused to back a vote declaring Iran’s Republican Guard a terrorist organisation, and has called for Israel and the US to negotiate with Hamas, the pro-Palestinian group also classified as “terrorist” by the State Department.
Mr Obama’s choice of Mr Hagel to run the Pentagon also raised eyebrows, given his recent positions on US defence policy. He voted against the president’s 2009 surge of more than 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, and in 2011 he said that the US defence budget was “bloated” and needed to be “pared down”.
Meanwhile, the nomination of John Brennan, 57, to head the CIA brought its own controversy.
Mr Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser, and one of the planners of the raid by US special forces that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, was considered as CIA director in 2008, but withdrew his name because of criticism of the torture techniques the agency used while he was an aide to then director George Tenet.
Speaking in 2007, Mr Brennan said he supported the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques”. But a year later, supporting Mr Obama’s first election campaign, he said he considered himself “a strong opponent” of torture, including the waterboarding of terrorist suspects performed during George W Bush’s administration.