President Obama is putting together a new national security team at the Pentagon and the CIA that is said to be designed for an era of downsizing.
That may be one of the most troubling issues with the two men he has nominated — former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska to be defense secretary and White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to head the CIA — though both carry other baggage that is being raised by their critics.
Mr. Hagel, a Republican, initially backed the war in Iraq, then turned into its fiercest critic, even against the troop surge strategy that turned the tide against al Qaeda. Then came his insulting, anti-Israel lobby remarks that many perceived to be anti-Semitic.
Mr. Brennan is a 25-year CIA veteran who played a key role in its “enhanced” interrogation techniques in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Since then, he has voiced concern about the CIA’s expanded and wildly successful paramilitary mission that has led to the stepped-up use of armed drones.
Mr. Hagel is now being described by The Washington Post as “a well-known war skeptic” and someone who “shares Obama’s aversion to military intervention.” This in an age when global terrorism and rogue nations remain two of the greatest threats to our national security. What signal does that send?
Absent some new, unseen developments, both men are expected to survive the Senate’s confirmation gantlet. But the process to come will no doubt reopen political wounds and raise serious questions about whether these two men are best suited to lead our nation’s most important national security agencies.
Mr. Hagel will necessarily be put through the wringer over his past attacks on what he called the “Jewish lobby” and the influence pro-Israeli groups often exert on Congress. “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” he said in an interview with author Aaron David Miller in 2008. His troubling antipathy toward America’s pro-Israel lobby, which he insists on calling the “Jewish lobby,” has crept into his remarks in the past, one way or another.
“The declaration from Hagel that he is not ‘the senator from Israel‘ is again a direct attack on Jews’ fidelity to the United States,” says Washington Post “Right Turn” blogger Jennifer Rubin. “For decades this kind of language has been gaining acceptance in Europe. But never in America. In elevating Hagel, the president in a real and troubling way moves us closer to Western Europe,” Ms. Rubin wrote this week.
Meantime, as the co-chairman of Mr. Obama’s intelligence advisory board, Mr. Hagel wants him to start negotiating with the terrorist Palestinian movement Hamas, which does not think Israel has any right to exist.
The White House has mounted a major lobbying effort of its own to counter Mr. Hagel’s critics, but success thus far is mixed.
“I don’t think the president can afford to lose another skirmish,” Abraham Foxman, president of the Anti-Defamation League and a leading Hagel critic, said this week. Mr. Foxman has been heavily lobbied from the West Wing in the past week to support Mr. Hagel’s nomination. In a carefully worded and subdued statement Monday, however, he said, “Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the president’s prerogative.”
Responses from other Jewish groups is less muted. David Harris, director of the American Jewish Committee, was reported to have told an administration official that he was keeping his powder dry: “We’re going to be watching the Senate confirmation hearings, listening carefully, and we’ll determine then our position,” he said.
Some Democratic leaders also seem to be less than enthusiastic in their responses. Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York said Mr. Hagel “has earned the right to nothing less than a full and fair process in the Senate. I look forward to fully studying his record and exploring his views.”
There’s also Mr. Hagel’s mixed record on sanctions toward a nuclear-armed Iran. He has embraced international sanctions imposed because of its uranium-enrichment program that has led it to the brink of nuclear weapons development. However, he has not drawn a clear line in the sand as Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta did, signaling a potential military response if Iran doesn’t abandon its path toward nuclear missiles.
Mr. Brennan’s actions as Mr. Obama’s senior adviser also have raised questions about his approach to the deadly use of missile-armed drone aircraft that have effectively struck terrorist targets. It has been widely reported that Mr. Brennan has sought much more stringent limits on their use, which Mr. Panetta and his successor at the CIA, David H. Petraeus, escalated over the past several years.