f t d +

Obama: 'Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve'

 ·  Joseph Morton, Omaha World Herald   ·   Link to Article

WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Monday officially tapped former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel to be his next secretary of defense.

"Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve," Obama said in announcing the appointment of Hagel, a Republican, from the White House's East Room. "To this day, Chuck bears the scars and the shrapnel of battles fought in our name."

When men and women in uniform see Chuck Hagel, the president said, they see "one of their own." Obama said Hagel's Vietnam War service would serve him well at a time of likely cuts to defense spending. 

And he said Hagel understands the U.S. is strongest when it stands with its friends.

Hagel said he looked forward to serving the men, women and families of the American armed forces during the wind-down of a long war in Afghanistan. He said he would always give Obama his "honest and most informed counsel."

Obama also announced that counterterrorism adviser John Brennan was his pick to lead the Central Intelligence Agency.
Hagel, a Republican, has faced criticism from both the left and right since he surfaced last month as the front-runner for defense, with the fiercest attacks coming from neoconservative quarters.

Activists and pundits such as William Kristol charge that Hagel has been insufficiently supportive of Israel and overly soft in his approach to Iran and that country's nuclear ambitions.

Hagel allies and White House officials say his words and positions regarding Israel and Iran have been twisted to create an unfair misperception. Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, said Hagel will be "completely in line with the president" on both issues.

"The president has a record of unprecedented security cooperation with Israel, and that's going to continue no matter who the defense secretary is," Rhodes said.

Despite expressing concern previously, the National Jewish Democratic Council said Monday that it expects Hagel to follow the president's lead in "providing unrivaled support for Israel."

"Setting policy starts and stops with the president," the group said in a statement.

But Hagel's Senate confirmation process is sure to be haunted by some of his words, including previous comments that American politicians are intimidated by the "Jewish lobby."

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement Monday that Hagel needs to explain those comments, which Foxman said "were hurtful to many in the Jewish community." Foxman also expressed some resignation about the nomination.

"Senator Hagel would not have been my first choice, but I respect the president's prerogative," Foxman said.

Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, called a Hagel appointment "a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel."

Ex-senators typically receive kind treatment from their former colleagues in these situations, and a number said nice things about Hagel when his name was initially floated.

The relentless criticism has, however, taken a toll that was evident on this week's Sunday talk shows.

During an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Hagel would be "the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation's history," calling the president's decision an "in-your-face nomination."

Hagel's combat experience could help blunt GOP opposition.

He would be the first former enlisted soldier to serve as defense secretary, and the White House is touting Hagel's decorated service in uniform, including the two Purple Hearts he received after being seriously wounded in Vietnam.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, a Republican, declined to take a position on the nomination but noted Hagel's service.

"If Sen. Hagel is confirmed, he has one very important attribute in his background that will serve him very well as secretary of defense," Heineman said. "He is a veteran of the U.S. Army. He served in combat. 

"He knows what it's like to get shot at, and I think its important to have a secretary of defense who understands that when you're discussing about putting this nation at war."

Pro-Hagel groups will rally to his side. The liberal veterans groups said Monday it had gathered more than 13,000 signatures, including those of more than 8,000 veterans and military families, on a petition backing Hagel.

The group's chairman, Jon Soltz, issued a statement praising Hagel's selection, touting Hagel's willingness to eliminate wasteful defense spending.

"Chuck Hagel is a vociferous advocate for cutting Pentagon waste - from outdated weapons to our over-bloated nuclear arsenal, both of which eat up billions and billions of dollars," Soltz said.

World-Herald staff writer Martha Stoddard contributed to this report, which includes material from the Associated Press.

Contact the writer: 202-630-4823,