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Hagel in the hot seat

Last updated: Friday, February 01, 2013 10:52 PM

US Defense Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel did not appear to be very successful in trying to allay concerns that he is anti-Israel and soft on Iran. At what was a rather testy confirmation hearing, Hagel was not asked what he would do as the new secretary of defense; the questions rather zeroed in on what he had said in the past.

Of all the hot-button issues, the Middle East was the toughest during the Senate grilling, and for good reason. Hagel was a vocal critic of former President George W. Bush's policies in Iraq. Hagel has called for direct talks with Iran, opposed sanctions against it and opposed the idea of a military strike by either the US or Israel. He complained in 2007 that the "Jewish lobby" in Washington scared lawmakers away from supporting a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He has taken stances on Hezbollah and Hamas that critics have decried as overly lenient.  

At Thursday's public hearing, Hagel tried to clarify his positions, saying he was "fully committed" to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, with "all options" on the table. "I will ensure our friend and ally Israel maintains its qualitative military edge in the region," he added. Hagel also addressed criticism over the "Jewish lobby" remark. "I should have said the pro-Israeli lobby."

It was not a grand performance by Hagel. He was at times hesitant and at others looked uncomfortable. One came away with the feeling he was not entirely prepared. The White House surely wanted better. Part of the problem is that the nominee himself provided so much fodder for ammunition that cross-examining him was not terribly difficult.

However, what was clear from the inquest was that Hagel will not be another Donald Rumsfeld, who practically coined the term "neocon" and who along with George Bush and Condoleezza Rice produced the tripartite alliance that employed bullying tactics as they threw America’s weight around. Their famed "You’re either with us or against us" jingle was a simplistic world view that left US foreign policy in tatters and its reputation besmirched, especially in the Middle East.

Hagel is to Obama much the way Rumsfeld was to Bush. The two were chosen because they were on the same wavelength with their bosses and carried the same message. Obama’s brief is to try to connect with the world and bridge differences; Bush wanted to pull rank and show who was boss.

Hagel is a dove who even though he didn’t say it outright, probably advocates peace, in contrast to a hawk like Rumsfeld who promoted war and belligerence.  

The hearing, crucial in determining whether Hagel will win Senate confirmation to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, is the first time Hagel has publicly addressed the criticism against him. Not unexpectedly, he did not get the kind of friendly reception his former colleague, soon-to-be Secretary of State John Kerry received earlier this week as he sailed through his confirmation. But Hagel will nevertheless be confirmed by the committee, squeaking through the confirmation process, and in doing so, keeping the administration on a moderate track.

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