Hagel's own words are fodder for critics

January 8, 2013 - 9:33 AM
Obama National Security

Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, president Barack Obama's choice for defense secretary, speaks in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, where the president made the announcement. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Chuck Hagel was blunt-spoken in the Senate, even when bucking fellow Republicans. Now opponents in his own party and elsewhere are using Hagel's words against him.

The Vietnam veteran and former two-term senator from Nebraska will need to explain some of his comments and views as President Barack Obama's choice for the next secretary of defense. A look at past remarks likely to come up during his confirmation hearing:

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Hagel, who says he's a strong supporter of Israel, stirred bad feelings by referring to pro-Israeli interests as "the Jewish lobby" and suggesting they wield undue power in Washington.

"The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people. ... I've always argued against some of the dumb things they do, because I don't think it's in the interest of Israel," Hagel told former Mideast peace negotiator and author Aaron David Miller in a 2006 interview.

Hagel continued: "I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator. I support Israel, but my first interest is, I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States, not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel."

His remarks have been denounced by some of his former Senate colleagues, including John McCain of Arizona, the past ranking member of the Armed Services Committee. The panel's incoming top Republican, Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, said he was "aware of the serious concerns" about Hagel's comments and record that would be vetted during the confirmation process.

Some lawmakers and pro-Israel activists criticize Hagel for seeking direct negotiations with Iran over its disputed nuclear program and sometimes opposing sanctions against Iran. They were angered by his suggestion that Iran be at the table for talks on future peace in Afghanistan. And many view him as too soft on Hamas and Hezbollah.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., declared that if confirmed, Hagel "would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation's history."

Hagel tried to quiet his critics Monday, telling the Lincoln Journal Star in Nebraska that there is "not one shred of evidence that I'm anti-Israeli, not one (Senate) vote that matters that hurt Israel."

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In 1998, Hagel opposed President Bill Clinton's nomination of James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg, saying a gay man couldn't be effective as a top diplomat.

"They are representing America," Hagel told the Omaha World Herald. "They are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay — openly, aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel — to do an effective job."

The remark was revived after Hagel's name emerged as a likely choice for the defense nomination, and gay rights groups denounced it as bigoted.

Hagel quieted the controversy somewhat by issuing an apology, saying his comments were "insensitive" and "do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record."

Hagel says he is fully committed to supporting gay troops and their families. As defense secretary, he would oversee a military that discharged gays and lesbians who attempted to serve openly until 2011, when that "don't ask, don't tell" policy was repealed.

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Hagel initially supported the Iraq war, but as it dragged on he spoke out against some of President George W. Bush's policies, including the decision to send a "surge" of 30,000 more troops.

In a 2007 Senate hearing, Hagel worried that the plan would lead to cross-border fighting with the Iranians or Syrians. He said it was "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out. I will resist it."

Hagel's stand put him at odds with the Republican president and most of his party's lawmakers, including fellow Vietnam veteran McCain. As it turned out, the troop surge was widely credited with stabilizing the war-torn country and putting it on a path that eventually enabled the U.S. withdrawal.

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Hagel's comments have also made some champions of the United States' extensive nation-building efforts in Afghanistan uneasy.

Hagel supported the war but his enthusiasm cooled as it dragged on for more than 10 years. He pointedly said that militaries are "built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations." In a radio interview this year, he said "the American people want out" of Afghanistan.

The next defense secretary will be in charge of winding down the war and paring down the defense budget.

Some human rights advocates worry that Hagel will be a voice for a limited military role and likely to oppose intervention in humanitarian crises, a divisive issue while the deadly Syrian conflict continues.

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Obama said Monday that Hagel, who volunteered for Vietnam and served there as a private and sergeant, would be the first enlisted man to become secretary of defense. Hagel served alongside his brother; both were wounded in combat.

His experiences in Vietnam have shaped his views today, Hagel says.

In an October interview with the online Vietnam Magazine, Hagel recalled telling himself in 1968, "If I ever get out of this and I'm ever in a position to influence policy, I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war."

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Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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