Obama under attack after nominating Hagel and Brennan to top security posts

Tue, Jan 8, 2013, 00:00

President Barack Obama was finalising his second-term national security team yesterday with the nomination of Chuck Hagel as defence secretary and counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan as head of the CIA – and in the process opens a new front in his bitter fight with Republicans in Congress.

After losing a bruising battle to nominate Susan Rice as Hillary Clinton’s replacement at the State department, Mr Obama will name Mr Hagel – a decorated war hero – as head of the Pentagon, despite vows of resistance from Republicans who accuse the former Nebraska senator of opposing measures to stop Iran obtaining a nuclear capability and of offering less than rock-solid support for Israel.

Mr Hagel’s nomination has also come under attack from Democrats and Republicans unhappy at his previous support for the now-abandoned “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that barred gays and lesbians from serving in the US military, as well as disparaging comments Mr Hagel made about the appointment of an openly gay US ambassador in 1998.

Replace Petraeus

The appointment of Mr Brennan – whose parents hailed from Roscommon – to replace disgraced general David Petraeus as head of the CIA has also been criticised because of Mr Brennan’s involvement with the Bush administration’s backing for harsh interrogation techniques that many have described as torture, although Mr Brennan denies he supported their use.

If the White House can successfully steer the nomination of both men through Congress then – alongside John Kerry as secretary of state – the trio will form the nucleus of Mr Obama’s national security team for the next four years. The civil war in Syria, threats from Iran and North Korea and the final stages of the US involvement in Afghanistan are among the pressing issues that will fill their in-trays, as well as the long-running issues as diverse as Middle Eastern peace, the advance of China and the remaining danger from al-Qaeda.

Political allegiance

Mr Obama, who was due to make the formal introduction of both nominations at the White House yesterday afternoon, will present Mr Hagel’s nomination as a bipartisan overture, citing Mr Hagel’s record as a Republican who worked for the election of Ronald Reagan as well as winning office as a Republican senator. Mr Hagel made his fortune in mobile phone services before being elected from his home state of Nebraska and serving for 12 years in Congress, until retiring from politics in 2009.

Despite Mr Hagel’s political allegiance, news of his nomination set off angry counterattacks from Republicans, including from some of those who served with him in Congress’s Republican caucus. They recall his often outspoken opposition to Republican national security policies – especially his blunt rejection of the Bush-era military build-up known as the “surge” in Iraq – which is now regarded by Republicans as the bright spot in American involvement there.

Mr Hagel has also been critical of the use of military force against Iran by the US as well as voicing support for Iran’s involvement in peace talks in Afghanistan, and has been unusually forthright for a US politician in discussing what he described as the “Jewish lobby” in the US, describing pro-Israel lobby group Aipac as “powerful”. Mr Hagel has previously supported direct talks between the US and leaders of Hamas.

When Mr Hagel’s nomination was first floated, groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition were quick to object, citing what it called his “failure to support Israel”.

“The appointment of Chuck Hagel would be a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel,” it said in a statement.

Gearing for battle

The White House is gearing up for a battle over Mr Hagel’s nomination. Yesterday it rolled out a statement in support by Senator Jack Reed, a Democratic member of the Senate armed services committee, saying: “Chuck Hagel will make an outstanding secretary of defence. He is highly qualified and his record of service to this country as a decorated combat veteran, successful chief executive officer, senator and statesman is extraordinary.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council also joined the fray: “While we have expressed concerns in the past, we trust that when confirmed, former senator Chuck Hagel will follow the president’s lead of providing unrivalled support for Israel,” it said.

The nomination of Mr Brennan, while less controversial, has also come in for criticism from liberal Democrats unhappy at his previous record at the CIA.

Mr Brennan had been a candidate to lead the agency in Mr Obama’s first term but withdrew his name from consideration. In doing so, Mr Brennan told Mr Obama that he was “a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration”. – (Guardian Service)