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Past remarks on Israel, gays cast cloud over Hagel pick

Obama’s nomination of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defence has riled politicians on both sides of the political aisle, and raised eyebrows among two of the president’s most loyal constituencies: Jews and gays.


After fighting Republicans over taxes, spending cuts, and the woman he initially envisioned taking over for Hillary Clinton at the State Department, US President Barack Obama is bracing for his next post-re-election battle.

His decision to nominate Chuck Hagel, former Republican senator from Nebraska and Vietnam veteran, as secretary of defence has indeed drawn sharp rebukes from both sides of the political aisle, and has ruffled feathers among American Jews and gays, two key groups of Obama supporters. In other words, grumbling is coming from several corners.

Some Democrats are annoyed that Obama has picked a Republican to take over for Leon Panetta at the head of the Pentagon, whereas many Republicans consider Hagel a disloyal conservative at best. Meanwhile, staunchly pro-Israel figures from both parties claim Hagel’s support of America’s closest ally in the Middle East is only lukewarm. And certain gay rights advocates have rung the alarm over a remark Hagel made about a gay ambassador several years ago.

“Obama's decision to nominate [Hagel] in the face of criticism on the right and left reinforces the view that he will not shy away from controversy during his second term,” noted Thomas Mann, a political scientist at left-leaning think tank the Brookings Institution.

An unlikely Obama ally

In many ways, Hagel seems a logical choice for a president who, despite his success in reaching the highest position in the country, considers himself somewhat of a political outsider. Hagel, who won two Purple Hearts (a top military honour) after returning from Vietnam, displayed an independent streak as senator from 1996 to 2009 (when he retired). Though he initially voted for the war in Iraq in 2002, he soon became one of its most vocal critics – much to the irritation of many of his Republican colleagues.

According to Michael O’Hanlon, a defence expert at the Brookings Institution, Hagel “was not afraid to challenge…the conventional wisdom on Iraq, Iran, Israel, and other matters”.

Hagel also became one of Obama’s unlikeliest allies. When Obama was a presidential candidate in 2008, Hagel accompanied him on a trip to Afghanistan, Iraq, Jordan, and Kuwait, and then defended him against rival John McCain’s accusation that the visit was mere political posturing. “The selection clearly reflects President Obama’s strong sense of kinship and loyalty to Hagel,” O’Hanlon noted.

Moreover, Hagel’s affiliation with the Republican party could serve as a strategic advantage when it comes to the president’s second-term defence goals; having a conservative oversee the White House plan to withdraw from Afghanistan and trim the military budget could help shield Obama from Republican criticism.

‘Antagonistic’ views toward Israel?

"...there will always be a special and historic bond with Israel, exemplified by our continued commitment to Israel’s defense. But this commitment cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships.”

 - An excerpt from Hagel's 2008 book, "America: Our Next Chapter"

For the moment, however, Republicans are leading the charge against Hagel. In an interview with political news site Politico last month, John McCain said that to “allege that Hagel is somehow a Republican – that is a hard one to swallow”. McCain’s ally, Senator Lindsay Graham, echoed that sentiment in a CNN interview on Sunday, noting that “[Hagel] has long severed his ties with the Republican Party”.

Graham specifically said that Hagel would have the “most antagonistic” views toward Israel of any US defence secretary ever nominated. Graham was referring to comments Hagel made during a 2006 interview, in which he said “the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people [in Washington]….I have always argued against some of the dumb things they do because I don’t think it’s in the interest of Israel”.

Jews are one of the Democrats’ most loyal constituencies (Obama earned roughly 75% of their vote in 2008 and 70% in 2012), and the influential American Jewish Committee has been urging Democratic senators to oppose Hagel’s nomination.

Other vocal Jewish Democrats, like former New York mayor Ed Koch, have joined the chorus of criticism. In an interview with Jewish news site Algemeiner in December, Koch said Hagel would be “a terrible appointment” and “would give great comfort to the Arab world that…President Obama is seeking to put space between Israel and his administration”.

Hagel responded in a Nebraska newspaper Monday, saying there is not “one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli”.

His supporters have also brushed aside the allegations, noting that the former senator has argued in favour of sending billions in military funding to Israel, and has called for an international boycott of Hamas.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, a centrist, wrote last month that Hagel is, in fact, precisely the right man for the job at this particular moment. “If ever Israel needed a US defense secretary who was committed to Israel’s survival, as Hagel has repeatedly stated -- but who was convinced that ensuring that survival didn’t mean having America go along with Israel’s self-destructive drift into settling the West Bank and obviating a two-state solution -- it is now,” Friedman wrote.

Gay rights activists cry foul

Another top Republican, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, has raised Hagel’s prior positions on Iran as reason to oppose his nomination. As a senator, Hagel opposed unilateral US sanctions against Iran, saying that they would undermine any future diplomatic engagement with the country.

As for Obama’s liberal base, though most Senate Democrats are expected to confirm Hagel, gay rights activists – who campaigned hard for Obama’s re-election – have spoken out against the nomination. The source of their concern is a comment Hagel made to reporters in 1998 that then-president Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Luxembourg might not be “effective” because he was “aggressively gay”.

Hagel has since apologised, releasing a statement on December 21: “My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive. They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to…any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of ‘open service’ and committed to LGBT military families.”

Though prominent gay rights organisation Human Rights Campaign accepted his apology, the controversy has only added to the growing sense that Obama may be burning political capital by picking Hagel as his next secretary of defence.

Coming off a convincing re-election, with his second term set to begin in just two weeks and his job approval ratings hovering around a healthy 55%, the president clearly feels he has political capital to burn. 

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