Chuck Hagel stuck close to well-known Obama administration policy positions in carefully worded responses to questions from senators who will decide the fate of his nomination to succeed Leon Panetta as the next Secretary of Defense.
Hagel, a former two-term Republican senator from Nebraska, will sit before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday morning where he will likely face the greatest opposition from his own political party. Prominent Republican senators have promised to vote against Hagel’s confirmation in speeches and Sunday op-eds in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.
The Republicans have targeted his stance to engage Iran and painted him as unsupportive of Israel and gay troops. In his answers, Hagel established his stances on women in combat and Pentagon’s way forward in an era of budgetary constraints.
On Iran, Hagel stuck to his previous position that “engagement” and diplomacy backed by strong sanctions were necessary. He warned that the “the window is closing” on the time when the U.S. must consider the use of force.
“Iran needs to demonstrate it is prepared to negotiate seriously,” said Hagel in 112 pages of responses to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee that Military.com obtained the day before the hearing.
Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, sought to ease the concerns of critics who question his support for Israel.
“The next Secretary of Defense must be vigilant in pursuing the goal of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, and must maintain our unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security,” Hagel said. “I am committed to considering all options to counter Iran and its aggression, and to maintain U.S. support for missile defense systems in Israel.”
Hagel has been targeted by gay rights groups who questioned his previous opposition to eliminating the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on gays serving openly in the military. Hagel said in his written responses to the SASC that he’s changed his opinion.
“I fully support the repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ and value the service of all those who fight for our country. If confirmed, I will do everything possible to the extent permissible under current law to provide equal benefits to the families of all our servicemembers,” he wrote.
Hagel said he also fully supports opening up combat roles to women. Outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey eliminated the direct ground combat exclusional rule for military women on Jan. 24.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) has said that there will be “very few” Republican votes for Hagel, but Levin told Politico that Hagel will “be fine” and the nomination will pass. The SASC is made up of 14 Democrats and 12 Republicans.
An affirmative vote by the Committee would send the nomination to the Senate floor, where Democrats hold a 53-45 edge. Two Independents, Sen. Bernard Sanders ,I-Vt., and the newly-elected Sen. Angus King, I-Maine., caucus with the Democrats.
Opponents of the nomination face long odds. Only nine Cabinet nominees in U.S. history have been formally rejected by a vote in the Senate, and the only Secretary of Defense nomination to be rejected was that of Sen. John Tower, R-Texas, who was the choice of former President George H.W. Bush in 1989.
In the overwhelming majority of cases where nominations fail, Presidents usually withdraw the nominations, or the nominees themselves drop out, to avoid the political fallout from a formal vote to reject.
President Obama has shown no signs of backing away from his support for Hagel, who supported Obama’s campaign in 2008 despite his friendship with the Republican nominee, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
McCain said he has “serious doubts” about Hagel’s nomination but maintains that they are still friends and has not said whether he would vote against him.
In announcing the nomination last month at the White House, Obama called Hagel a “patriot” and cited Hagel’s Vietnam experience as a main factor in his choice.
“Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction,” Obama said of Hagel, who served as a squad leader in 1967-68 with the Army’s 9th Infantry Division. Hagel did not have to be told that “sending Americans to fight and bleed in the mud, in the dirt, is something we do only when absolutely necessary,” Obama said.
Hagel focused on his Vietnam experience and its lasting effects on him in his written responses to the SASC. Hagel would be the first Vietnam veteran to be Secretary of Defense, the first to come from the enlisted ranks and the first to have gone to college under the GI bill.
“I served a 12-month tour which included the Tet Offensive in 1968. I rose to the rank of infantry Sergeant. For ten of those months, I served alongside my younger brother Tom. I understand what it is like to be a soldier in war,” Hagel said. “I also understand what happens when there is poor morale and discipline among the troops and a lack of clear objectives, intelligence, and command and control from Washington,” Hagel said.
“I believe that experience will help me as Secretary of Defense to ensure we maintain the best fighting force in the world, protect our men and women in uniform, and ensure that we are cautious and certain when contemplating the use of force, Hagel said.
Hagel, who initially supported the war in Iraq before becoming a vocal critic, said he backed Obama’s decision to withdraw troops and said the Iraq experience should make those in charge think long and hard before resorting to force.
“We must think very carefully before we commit our Armed Forces to battlefields abroad,” Hagel said.
On Afghanistan, Hagel said he supported the President’s plan to withdraw all combat forces by the end of 2014, when a residual force whose size has yet to be decided would stay on for training and counter-terrorism missions. But Hagel said the remaining troops must stay immune to Afghan law or “I will not support a continued U.S. military presence.”
Hagel echoed outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s concern that military readiness would be devastated and all 800,000 of DOD’s civilian personnel could expect 22-day furloughs if Congress fails to avoid sequestration and extends the continuing resolution.
Even before the announcement, critics lined up to call into question Hagel’s past remarks about Israel and Iran.
Hagel came under scrutiny from pro-Israel members of Congress from both sides of the aisle over his comments in a 2006 interview with author and former Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller.
"The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," Hagel said, but "I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli senator."
Hagel has since said in statements that his positions on Israel have been “completely distorted,” while acknowledging that “I have also questioned some very cavalier attitudes taken about very complicated issues in the Middle East.”
Hagel’s long-standing position calling for “engagement’ with Iran has also come under fire from conservative think tanks.
Danielle Pletka, an analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said Hagel held “extreme views on policy and dangerous views” on negotiating with Iran and designated terrorist groups such as Hamas that would harm U.S. national security interests.
“The real question is whether those views about Israel are part and package of a larger set of views” on America’s use of power, Pletka said. “The issue is not differences with the Israeli government. Everybody has differences with the Israeli government. I don’t care,” Pletka said.
The issue was whether Hagel’s views on Israel were “symptomatic of a world view,” Pletka said, adding that he felt that Hagel’s attempts to moderate or explain his views only showed that he had “little courage of his own previous convictions.”