President Obama is said to be considering Chuck Hagel, a Republican former senator from Nebraska, as his next Defense Secretary. And neo-conservatives in Washington, inside and outside the Republican Party, are going on the attack.
Bill Kristol has led the way, accusing Hagel of having “anti-Israel, pro-appeasement-of-Iran bona fides.” The group he founded, Emergency Committee for Israel, is launching advertisements attacking Hagel starting Thursday. The Weekly Standard, the neo-conservative magazine Kristol edits, ran a quote from an unnamed GOP Senate aide calling Hagel “anti-Semitic” because he once said that many people on Capitol Hill are intimidated by “the Jewish lobby”.
The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, a reliably hawkish conservative, is also getting in on the act. The Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens agreed, saying that if Obama taps Hegel, American Jews should finally desert the Democratic Party.
This resistance to Hegel is primarily coming from one place, says Paul Pillar, a long-time CIA operative now writing for The National Interest. “It’s motivated by people who believe that the interests of the United States should be subordinate to the interests of the State of Israel,” he says.
The anti-Hagel campaign has veered beyond Israel, though. Unnamed Capitol Hill aides have slammed his management style as overbearing and intimidating. And The Washington Post editorial page, which agitated for the disastrous war in Iraq, accused Hagel of a range of policy sins, including his willingness to cut the Pentagon’s budget—a willingness most Americans appear to share.
“Mr. Hagel’s stated positions on critical issues, ranging from defense spending to Iran, fall well to the left of those pursued by Mr. Obama during his first term — and place him near the fringe of the Senate that would be asked to confirm him,” the Post wrote Wednesday.
Republican politicians have joined the campaign. “We had some disagreements; obviously those will be examined, for example, when he said the [Iraq] surge could not succeed, and obviously he was wrong there,” said Sen. John McCain, last seen nixing Susan Rice’s chances of being secretary of state. “We obviously want to review his whole record and go through the regular process.”
“I think he’s just going to have to explain some of these comments that disturb people,” agreed Senator Lindsey Graham.
Some older, moderate Republicans—the kind extinct in today’s GOP—have come to Hagel’s defense. "At an uncertain time in America—with a significant debt burden, a polarized Congress, and a host of challenges facing the international community, I am confident Senator Hagel will provide a vibrant, no-nonsense voice of logic and leadership to the United States," Brent Scowcroft, who served as President George H. W. Bush’s National Security Advisor, said in a statement. Richard Armitage, President George W. Bush’s Deputy Secretary of State and a key ally of Colin Powell, agreed. "Chuck Hagel might be just the guy to come in to steward the Pentagon through what's going to be a tough budget environment,” Armitage said.
Still, whether Obama is willing to put his political capital into a Senate confirmation fight against Kristol et al., even as he deals with the fiscal cliff, gun control and myriad other issues, is a different question. As Susan Rice can attest.