Obama touts Hagel, says no decision on defense secretary job

WASHINGTON Sun Dec 30, 2012 12:12pm EST

US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (R) shares a laugh with Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) at the Amman Citadel in Amman July 22, 2008. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

US Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) (R) shares a laugh with Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) at the Amman Citadel in Amman July 22, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Ali Jarekji

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama offered strong support for former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as the potential next U.S. defense secretary but said in remarks aired on Sunday that he had not yet decided on a nominee for the Pentagon post.

Hagel is considered a leading candidate to replace outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, but the former Nebraska lawmaker has come under criticism for his record on Israel and for a comment that being gay was an inhibiting factor for being an ambassador.

"I've served with Chuck Hagel. I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate, somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam," Obama told NBC's "Meet the Press" in an interview taped on Saturday and broadcast on Sunday.

Any nomination for defense secretary must be approved by the Senate where some lawmakers have voiced criticism about their former colleague.

"I think a lot of Republicans and Democrats are very concerned about Chuck Hagel's positions on Iran sanctions, his views toward Israel, Hamas and Hezbollah, and that there is wide and deep concern about his policies. All of us like him as a person," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said.

"There would be very little Republican support for his nomination, at the end of the day, there will be very few votes," Graham said on Fox News Sunday.

Republican Senator Tom Coburn from Oklahoma said bluntly: "I cannot vote for Chuck Hagel."

Aside from his controversial statements, "he does not have the experience to manage a very large organization like the Pentagon," Coburn said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "If there's a place that we need great management it's the Pentagon."

Senator Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, said on the same television show that Hagel deserved "respect for the service he's given our country in the military and in the Senate" and should be given consideration. "He at least deserves a hearing and an opportunity," he said.

Obama said he had seen nothing that would disqualify Hagel.

The president said Hagel had apologized for his comments related to homosexuality, referred to by NBC's David Gregory in the interview.

"With respect to the particular comment that you quoted, he apologized for it," Obama said.

"And I think it's a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people's attitudes about gays and lesbians serving our country. And that's something that I'm very proud to have led," he said.

Obama came out in favor of gay marriage in the middle of his re-election bid this year. Earlier in his term he presided over the end of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibited gay men and women from serving openly in the U.S. military.

Hagel, who left the Senate in 2008, has faced questions about his record on Israel.

Some of Israel's leading U.S. supporters contend that Hagel at times opposed Israel's interests, voting several times against U.S. sanctions on Iran, and made disparaging remarks about the influence of what he called a "Jewish lobby" in Washington.

Obama, who has strained relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has faced questions of his own from the American Jewish community about his approach to the U.S. ally.

Obama said Hagel was doing an "outstanding job" serving on an intelligence advisory board and gave no indication on when he would make his final decision about the defense chief job.

The president has already backed down once from a contentious nomination, choosing Democratic Senator John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state rather than going with his presumed first choice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, whom many Republicans opposed after she made controversial remarks about the September 11 attacks on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans.

(Editing by Sandra Maler)

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Comments (2)
I understood carrying on with Gates when Obama was first elected, given that we were still tied up in Iraq. But, apart from every other issue concerning Hagel, why do we need a life-long Republican in a top position in a Democratic administration? Aren’t there any Democrats out there? And this buys Obama nothing with Republicans.

Can’t imagine a Republican president appointing a Democrat at DOD.

Dec 30, 2012 11:17am EST  --  Report as abuse
Besides accepting an Iranian nuclear weapons program even if Iran obtains ICBMS aimed at America, there are many many reasons besides Israel and Anti Semitism issues that make Chuck Hagel a very poor choice.

Hagel’s troglodyte record on gay rights is still an issue even though President Obama finds it very inconvenient as he would like to nominate Hagel tomorrow.

I hope the President will not risk the political cost of loosing the confirmation battle on this terrible choice.

It’s not only about what he said many years ago, but that he has not come out for any specific or general commitment to equality for gay military families.

In general for gays to accept Hagel, he must say that he would like to see DOMA overturned at the Supreme Court.

But there are many ways a Secretary of Defense could help gay military families no matter how DOMA is decided and Hagel has not come out in favor of any of these.

Reports to the contrary, LGBT equality is not yet a done deal in the military. There is still the matter of partner benefits. There still remain a handful of regulations that could be revised independent of the Defense of Marriage act that could bring some equity of compensation and benefits to gay and lesbian servicemembers. but remain denied due only to Department of Defense foot-dragging:

Included in the discretionary benefits currently denied are spousal identication cards, cited in the Pentagon’s own Working Group study as not requiring DOMA repeal to deliver.

Dec 31, 2012 2:45am EST  --  Report as abuse
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