Hagel Grilling Before Any Nomination

Photograph by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Chuck Hagel on Capitol Hill.

Written with Laura Litvan

Chuck Hagel is getting a grilling even before President Barack Obama says whether he’ll nominate the former Nebraska senator for secretary of defense.

The Republican’s past comments opposing the troop surge during the Iraq war, questioning economic sanctions against Iran and citing the influence of the “Jewish lobby” have drawn a campaign of opposition from supporters of U.S. intervention abroad and from some advocates for Israel.

“However bad Obama’s foreign policy is, Hagel is to the left of Obama,” William Kristol, who was chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, said in a Dec. 14 podcast. Kristol is editor of the Weekly Standard, which calls itself a “conservative magazine and blog.”

Hagel, 66, is a leading candidate to replace the departing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, according to a White House official who asked not to be identified discussing deliberations on the president’s second-term Cabinet. Some of Hagel’s opponents have called for Obama to choose an alternative such as former Under Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy.

A Hagel nomination would benefit from the support senators usually give current and former members of the chamber. Republican Senator William Cohen of Maine was unanimously confirmed for defense secretary in 1997, and Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton of New York was confirmed for secretary of state on a 94-2 vote in 2009.

Still, colleagues say he would be pressed at his confirmation hearing to provide assurances on the issues raised by his critics.

“He’s a former colleague, so he would get very fair treatment up here,” Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 3 Republican leader, said in an interview. “But it’s an important position, and he’d have to answer some of the same hard questions any nominee would. There’s a lot going on in the world right now.”

Hagel, who declined to comment through a spokesman, is a decorated Vietnam War veteran who established a reputation as an independent thinker on foreign policy during 12 years in the Senate, where he served on the Foreign Relations Committee.

He irked members of President George W. Bush’s administration and some fellow Republicans by becoming a vocal opponent of the surge of 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq in 2007. Hagel argued the administration lacked a coherent strategy and was inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment in the region.

“The surge turned out to be successful,” Senator Dan Coats, an Indiana Republican, said in an interview. “I think he was very publicly critical on a lot of policies that didn’t represent positions of our party.”

Opponents have organized an anti-Hagel campaign including blog posts and a commercial appearing on cable news channels in the Washington area. His nomination was opposed by the Washington Post in an editorial titled “Pentagon Mismatch.”

Hagel’s friends and supporters are starting to fight back against the depiction of his position on Middle East issues. They are circulating a two-page point-by-point rebuttal that portrays the criticism as overblown and based on isolated votes or comments taken out of context.

“Chuck Hagel’s knowledge, experience and relationships in this region, including Israel, outclass his critics,” Andrew Parasiliti, who served as Hagel’s foreign-policy adviser from 2001 to 2005, said in an e-mailed statement. “To tag him as ‘anti-Israel’ is simply wrong and a cheap smear.”

See the full report on Hagel at Bloomberg.com.

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