WASHINGTON — Chuck Hagel's nomination as defense secretary won the backing this week of two key Senate Democrats, while GOP opposition stiffened.
The former Republican senator from Nebraska has been reaching out to all 100 senators with phone calls, letters and face-to-face meetings. He is seeking to build support for his nomination ahead of his confirmation hearing, which is expected either the last week of January or the first week of February.
The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, said Tuesday after meeting with Hagel that he couldn't support the nomination, citing differences on budget cuts, nuclear disarmament and Iran.
“We are simply too philosophically opposed on the issues,” Inhofe said.
But in a big sign of progress in lining up Democrats, Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said they would vote for Hagel. In a potential preview of Hagel's confirmation hearing, Schumer and Boxer indicated that Hagel is hitting some different notes on issues such as Iran.
Hagel has previously stressed the importance of diplomacy, advocated engagement with Iran and criticized talk of U.S. military action against Iran.
That didn't sit well with those who have advocated taking a harder line with Iran in attempting to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. Schumer, among the most hawkish Senate Democrats on Iran, said he was reserving judgment on Hagel when the nomination was first announced.
Then Hagel sat down with Schumer on Monday at the White House for an hour-and-a-half meeting.
“Sen. Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do 'whatever it takes' to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force,” Schumer said in his statement Tuesday backing Hagel's' nomination. “He said his 'top priority' as secretary of defense would be the planning of military contingencies related to Iran.”
Hagel previously opposed unilateral sanctions against Iran. He strongly criticized then-President George W. Bush for slapping unilateral sanctions on Iran, saying at the time that such an approach would only unite moderate and conservative Iranians against the United States and escalate the threat of a military conflict.
“Unilateral sanctions rarely ever work,” Hagel said at the time. “It will just drive the Iranians closer together.”
But Hagel told Boxer and Schumer that he supports President Barack Obama's current sanctions against Iran and that further unilateral sanctions might be effective and necessary in the future.
Peter Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who was a national security adviser during the George W. Bush administration, said there appears to be a “striking evolution” in Hagel's thinking.
“This is not likely to satisfy the hardened critics who will view this as him saying anything, but it provides the cover for people like Schumer and others who are keen not to embarrass the president but also don't want to embarrass themselves by voting for someone who is out of step with them on Iran or Israel,” Feaver said.
Schumer himself sought to pre-empt criticism that Hagel is willing to say whatever he has to say in order to win confirmation.
“I know some will question whether Sen. Hagel's assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post. But I don't think so. Sen. Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago. His views are genuine, and reflect this new reality,” Schumer said in his statement.
Indeed, objective observers suggested that it's only natural that Hagel's views on different areas of foreign policy would shift over time, as have those of many politicians.
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it's important to remember that everyone would still like to avoid a nuclear-armed Iran through peaceful negotiations. Credible military options are important, he said, but not what anyone would describe as desirable.
“They certainly aren't the preferred solution, really, for anyone,” Cordesman said.
He suggested that some of Hagel's critics have been seizing on long-ago statements and taking them out of context.
“In the last 50 years, I've said enough stupid things to have a list of embarrassing quotes,” Cordesman said.
Hagel's interactions with senators on the hill so far highlight that there will be valid questions asked and answered during his confirmation hearing.
“These will be real hearings, and they should be,” Cordesman said. “What they should not be is an exercise in character assassination.”
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