A potential showdown looms over President Barack Obama’s pick of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel to lead the Defense Department, which is facing major decisions as it downsizes during an era of tight purse-strings.
Obama on Monday nominated John Brennan as CIA director and Hagel as defense secretary, replacing the retiring Leon Panetta. The Hagel selection, which was rumored for weeks, has drawn fierce opposition from some Republicans, who say they are concerned about some of his past statements concerning Israel and Iran.
A Republican, Hagel was praised by Obama for his independence and bipartisan approach to issues. Hagel served in Vietnam, receiving two Purple Hearts. If confirmed, he would become the first Vietnam veteran to serve as defense secretary.
Hagel would take over the department’s reins during a time of significant change. Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, a defense think tank, said because of budget pressures, each of the armed forces will have to put their focus on upgrading and modernizing current aircraft and programs rather than on acquiring new weapons systems.
Defense cuts are a certainty.
“Here’s the bottom line for Wright-Patterson,” Thompson said. “Chuck Hagel is a wounded combat veteran who has been a big supporter of veterans benefits. That means he’ll be looking out for military employees, but he probably also will be managing a gradual downsizing of the Defense establishment for the next four years.”
The nomination of Hagel, who must be confirmed by a majority of the Senate, will almost certainly undergo a bruising fight. Already, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., have expressed reservations about the nomination, and Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman said Monday he is “disappointed” in the pick.
“I believe Sen. Hagel should get a fair look and an opportunity to defend his record, his past comments, and his current beliefs,” Portman said, “but I don’t understand why the administration is looking to pick yet another political fight instead of working with Congress to solve some of the very real problems we face as a country.”
Portman did not indicate that he would vote against Hagel but said both Democrats and Republicans have expressed “significant concerns” about his positions and past votes on issues relating to U.S. allies.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, was more muted in his response, saying he looks forward to “full and fair confirmation hearings. Democratic Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Dianne Feinstein of California have signaled support for their former colleague.
A coalition of groups including gay rights activists, pro-Israel groups and conservatives have been vocal in their opposition. The nomination is also causing jitters in Israel, where some circles view the former Nebraska senator as unsympathetic or even hostile.
As a member of the Senate, Hagel in 2006 said that military action against Iran’s nuclear program is “not a viable, feasible, responsible option,’’ a stance that put him at odds with today’s Israeli government, which has warned it would take military action to end Iran’s efforts to build a nuclear bomb.
He appeared to reverse himself last September, co-signing an opinion piece in the Washington Post that said,
“U.S. national security would be seriously threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran,’’ adding that “all options’’ should be available to the president, “including the use of military force.’’
Hagel also has called for the U.S. to adopt a more even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Some fear the appointment could further strain what is already a cool relationship between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is expected to win re-election later this month.
“Because of his statements in the past, and his stance toward Israel, we are worried,” Reuven Rivlin, the speaker of the Israeli parliament and a member of Netanyahu’s Likud Party, told The Associated Press.
Brennan would succeed Petraeus
Brennan, Obama’s nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency, is a 25-year CIA veteran who has served as the White House homeland security adviser for four years.
There is some controversy over his selection as well, though Obama praised Brennan as one of the nation’s most skilled and respected intelligence professionals. He would succeed former CIA Director David Petraeus, who resigned after admitting he had an affair.
Brennan himself withdrew from consideration for the spy agency’s top job in 2008 amid questions about his connection to harsh interrogation techniques used during the George W. Bush administration.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., issued a statement shortly after the White House announcement on Brennan, saying he had “many questions and concerns about his nomination to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency, especially what role he played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the CIA during the last administration, as well as his public defense of those programs.”
Jack Torry of the Washington Bureau and the Associated Press contributed to this report.
What’s at stake
The defense secretary has a significant impact on the region’s military industry.
Economy: Wright-Patterson Air Force Base employs more than 29,700 military and civilian employees and had a statewide economic impact of $4.7 billion in 2011, according to the most recent figures available.
Jobs: Ohio’s largest single-site employer, Wright-Patterson also contributes to nearly 36,000 jobs outside the base, according to base officials. More than 250 defense-related businesses work with the base in the region.