Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel has been battling critics for his nomination to the Obama administration’s top civilian military job for weeks – and now the Secretary of Defense nominee will taste fire when he comes head to head with the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearing tomorrow.
The nomination rests on whether or not key Republicans will begrudgingly accept Hagel.
Republicans who think the realist senator – who is opposed to what he thinks is Israeli overreach in influencing U.S. politics, and is a harsh critic of Bush-era neoconservative foreign policy – is a bad choice for the job are lining up to take swings at Hagel, regardless of his decades of working with them as a colleague and fellow Republican.
Committee head Sen. James Inhofe (R-) wrote a Sunday op/ed (R-Okla.) in the Washington Post in which he said he was “unable to support [Hagel’s] nomination,” saying he feared Hagel would be a “staunch advocate” for reducing the size of the military and was “willing to subscribe to a worldview that is predicated on appeasing our adversaries while shunning our friends.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) says he will fight to block Hagel’s nomination until outbound Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testifies before Congress regarding the administration’s failure to prevent a terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. Graham has been one of the foremost senators to calling the administration’s actions a “cover-up” and recently commented that retiring Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had “gotten away with murder” in relation to her testimony on the attack.
But some Republicans have come forward to support Hagel. Sen. Thad Cochran, a Mississippi Republican, backed his nomination Tuesday.
As Slate reports, that endorsement is critical, as President Obama will then be just four votes away from having Hagel’s appointment confirmed without chance of a filibuster (assuming every Democrat votes for Hagel, which is likely). The really critical vote then, falls to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is confronted with a decision on whether to harshly chastise Hagel or let him slip past the committee.
“My biggest concern is his overall attitude about the United States, our role in the world, particularly in the Middle East,” Sen. McCain said last week. “We’ll be talking more about them in the hearing.”
If McCain attacks Hagel, the nomination will be a bitter, drawn-out fight, and the nomination may be blocked. If he chooses to go easy on him, then other Republicans will recognize the nomination challenge to be pointless.
Hagel and McCain were once both friends, but have fallen out in recent years, especially since Hagel worked closely with candidate Obama in 2008. Hagel refused to endorse McCain since the two “so fundamentally disagree on the future course of our foreign policy and our role in the world.” The Iraq war played a role as well; McCain returned from Vietnam convinced that the war was just but mishandled by senior military commanders, and this led him to staunchly support continued occupation of Iraq. Hagel, however, grew to oppose the war after finding out President Johnson knew it was “fruitless but feared being impeached if he reversed course.”
Hagel later commented in 2002 that Iraq war supporters “don’t know anything about war”. He also added that “they come at it from an intellectual perspective versus having sat in jungles or foxholes and watched their friends get their heads blown off. I try to speak for those ghosts of the past a little bit.”
McCain might have good reasons to temper his opposition to Hagel. In 2012 he demolished U.S. diplomat Susan Rice’s nomination for Secretary of State, and is trying to push through a bipartisan immigration reform package which might require he moderate his stances for some time. And he recently backed Sen. John Kerry, another Vietnam war veteran who later opposed the conflict, for Secretary of State through an easy confirmation process.
For his part, Hagel is playing defense: Wednesday, he released a 112-page response to a questionnaire from the Armed Services Committee in which he emphasized his Vietnam war experience and took tough positions on Iran.
“I understand what it is like to be a soldier in war,” wrote Hagel. “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. I believe that experience will help me as secretary of defence 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 will be introduced to the committee tomorrow at 9:30 AM by former Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and former Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, but no formal announcement has been made by the panel.