In reporting President Obama’s pick of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel to replace outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday, the New York Times also noted that resistance to his selection is mounting in the Senate. Hailing his nominee as “the leader that our troops deserve,” President Obama added, “Just as Sergeant Hagel was there for his brother, Secretary Hagel will be there for you.” Obama was referring to the two Purple Hearts Hagel received in Vietnam as well as his work as CEO of the United Service Organization (USO).
A number of voices, both inside and outside the Washington beltway, began to question whether or not Obama’s pick is the best man for the job. The Times noted,
Conservative and Jewish groups say that Mr. Hagel has opposed sanctions on Iran, has inadequately supported Israel and has advocated engagement with groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. They also fault him for having once referred to pro-Israel lobbying groups on Capitol Hill as “the Jewish lobby.”
His comments about “the Jewish lobby” having undue influence in Washington raised some eyebrows:
The Jewish lobby (in the United States) intimidates a lot of people here … [and does some] dumb things [that aren't] smart for Israel. 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, [and] not to Israel.
He also drew criticism for not being hard enough on Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, by suggesting that a “pragmatic” approach be taken to convince Hamas to moderate its violent intentions toward Israel. Considering that Hamas is designated as a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, Canada, the European Union and Japan, Hagel’s critics think Hagel's suggestion to engage Hamas in dialogue reflects a softer position on the group.
This, coupled with his refusal six years ago to sign a letter asking the European Union to declare another anti-Israeli group, Hezbollah, as a terrorist organization, only added to his perceived image as a pacifist. In response, Hagel said, “I’m not a pacifist. I believe in using force but only after a very careful decision-making process.… I will do everything I can to avoid a needless, senseless war.”
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Photo of former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel: AP Images