Nothing disqualifies Hagel for defence post, says Obama


US president Barack Obama offered strong support for former Republican senator Chuck Hagel as the country’s potential next defence secretary but said in remarks aired yesterday he had not decided on a nominee for the Pentagon post.

Mr Hagel is considered a leading candidate to replace outgoing secretary of defence 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 valour in Vietnam,” Mr Obama told NBC’s Meet the Press in an interview recorded on Saturday.

Mr Obama said he had seen nothing that would disqualify Mr Hagel.

The president said Mr Hagel had apologised for his comments on homosexuality, referred to by NBC’s David Gregory in the interview.

“With respect to the particular comment that you quoted, he apologised for it,” Mr 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.

Mr Obama voiced support for gay marriage in the middle of his re-election bid. 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 US military.

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

Some of Israel’s leading US supporters contend Mr Hagel at times opposed Israel’s interests, voting several times against US sanctions on Iran, and disparaging the influence of what he called a “Jewish lobby” in Washington.

Mr Obama, who has strained relations with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has faced questions of his own from the American Jewish community about his approach to the US ally.

Mr Obama said Mr 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 defence 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, US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. – (Reuters)