President Barack Obama rebooted his national security team Monday, nominating former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel as his new Secretary of Defense, and Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan as Director of the CIA.
Calling Hagel “the leader our troops deserve,” Obama effusively praised the former Republican senator’s decorated record as a soldier, businessman, and senator.
“Chuck Hagel’s leadership of our military would be historic,” the president said, noting that Hagel would be both the first person of enlisted rank and the first Vietnam War veteran to serve as Secretary of Defense.
Obama referenced Hagel’s outspoken criticism of the George W. Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War, saying that Hagel understands “war is not an abstraction,” but “something we only do when absolutely necessary.”
The president also suggested that Hagel — who argued in 2011 that the Pentagon’s budget is “in many ways bloated” and must be “pared down” — is well-suited to deal with the upcoming sequestration budget cuts.
Hagel “knows that even as we make tough fiscal choices, we have to do so wisely,” Obama said.
Despite Obama’s strong support, Hagel is likely to face a difficult nominating process. Leaders from both parties have expressed concern over Hagel’s perceived lack of support for Israel — a theory that is largely based on a 2006 interview where Hagel said that the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people.”
Although Hagel served two terms as a Republican senator, several current Senate Republicans are likely to oppose him. On Sunday, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and Texas senators John Cornyn and Ted Cruz signaled that they are unlikely to support Hagel’s nomination.
“Chuck Hagel, if confirmed to be Secretary of Defense, would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense towards the State of Israel in our nation’s history,” Graham said on CNN’s State of the Union. “He has long severed his ties with the Republican Party. This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel.”
Perhaps more concerning for Hagel is the reticence of many Democratic senators. Not only have few high-profile Democrats spoken out in Hagel’s defense, but according to NBC News, as many as 10 Senate Democrats plan to vote against Hagel. If that number is accurate, then at least six Republicans would have to cross the aisle and side with the White House in order for Hagel to be confirmed.
Obama’s pick for CIA director may also cause a provocative Senate battle. Brennan — who Obama praised Monday as “one of our most skilled intelligence professionals” — withdrew his name from consideration for the job in 2008, due to questions surrounding his involvement with the Bush administration’s use of “enhanced interrogation” techniques.
Perhaps mindful of that controversy, Obama stressed that Brennan “understands we are a nation of laws…In moments of debate and decision, he asks the tough questions and insists on high and rigorous standards.”
Nonetheless, Brennan will likely have to defend his record to liberals. As Laura Murphy, the ACLU’s Washington Director, told Salon, “There are some really important concerns that need to be publicly addressed before the Senate moves forward with the nomination.” Although the ACLU does not take positions on nominees for executive branch jobs, Murphy called Brennan’s nomination “troubling,” and warned that “We definitely are concerned.”
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