WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel has taken a barrage of incoming fire since his name was floated a week ago as a possible replacement for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Now the former Nebraska senator and his allies are fighting back.
Critics have cited a litany of Hagel’s past statements and votes that they view as evidence he has been insufficiently supportive of Israel and not tough enough toward Iran and groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
A couple of fresh blows fell Wednesday, including the Washington Post editorial page urging President Obama to go with someone other than Hagel, such as former undersecretary of defense Michele Flournoy. The editorial cited Hagel’s approach to Iran and defense budget cuts.
One of the paper’s conservative columnists, Jennifer Rubin, quoted particularly harsh words from Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League.
“His record relating to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship is, at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling,” Foxman was quoted as saying. “The sentiments he’s expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism in the genre of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and former President Jimmy Carter.”
But Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to Presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford, told The World-Herald that Hagel’s critics are “way off base.”
Scowcroft said he has been astonished at the intensity of their attacks, particularly those related to Israel and Iran.
“The attacks are scurrilous,” Scowcroft said. “They’re motivated by the worst kinds of motivation. First of all, they’re not true. I think Chuck Hagel is about as balanced on the Middle East as anyone I could think of.”
As is customary for a potential nominee, Hagel has been keeping a low profile. But the pro-Hagel forces began circulating a “fact sheet” Wednesday aimed at undermining the criticism and touting Hagel’s support for Israel.
For example, critics have targeted Hagel’s opposition to a measure labeling Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization.
That vote is one target of an anti-Hagel television ad unveiled this week by the conservative Emergency Committee for Israel. The ad also quotes Hagel saying that military action against Iran is not a responsible option.
“For Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel is not a responsible option,” the voice-over intones.
But the fact sheet from Hagel’s defenders notes that his opposition was shared by 21 other senators and was based on the measure’s lack of support for any diplomatic strategy. Hagel also thought it could have been used as a back door for the Bush administration to get congressional approval for military action against Iran.
The fact sheet points to quotes from Hagel’s book, “America: Our Next Chapter,” in which Hagel warned about the dangers of a nuclear Iran, and other quotes supportive of ratcheting up multilateral sanctions against Iran.
Indeed, Scowcroft said Hagel’s approach to Iran should earn him praise.
“It’s about time that we have a thoughtful policy, because to me a military conflict with Iran would be a disaster for the United States, an absolute disaster, and I think Chuck wants to look for other ways to deal with it, and I think the administration is pursuing those, and I think we ought to give it a chance to work out,” Scowcroft said.
Hagel is standing by his criticism of Israel’s 2006 military action in Lebanon and his desire for an immediate cease-fire in that conflict. The fact sheet notes that a commission appointed by the Israeli government also criticized those actions.
In his book, Hagel examined the Middle East peace process and said a “comprehensive solution should not include any compromise regarding Israel’s Jewish identity, which must be assured. The Israeli people must be free to live in peace and security.”
He also wrote, “There will always be a special and historic bond with Israel exemplified by our continued commitment to Israel’s defense.”
He followed that with language critics might seize on: “But this commitment cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships, which are in crisis. All of our interests will suffer if we are perceived as being implacably and irreversibly at odds with the Arab and Muslim world.”
Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush, told Politico that the criticism of Hagel has been “terribly misguided” and said criticism of the pro-Israel lobby isn’t unusual on Capitol Hill.
Still, there is evidence that the attacks have inflicted some damage. After Hagel’s name was first dropped, many of his former colleagues said positive things about him publicly.
A number of them told reporters this week, however, that Hagel can look forward to some tough questions if he’s nominated.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said Wednesday that he respected Hagel and noted that he had crossed the river to campaign for the Nebraskan. Still, Grassley said he would wait until after Hagel’s confirmation hearings to make up his mind.
“He’s made some statements on Israel that I have some questions about,” Grassley said.
If joining the Cabinet doesn’t work out, maybe Hagel could look to higher office down the road.
Scowcroft said he had urged Hagel to run for president in the past and said he will have chances to do so in the future.
“He’s just a kid,” Scowcroft said.
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