Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel hasn't been nominated for anything, but the onslaught of attacks against him have prompted his friends and supporters to begin a campaign to respond and defend the potential next defense secretary.
President Barack Obama is not expected to announce new nominations for national security cabinet positions until at least Dec. 21 and perhaps later than that. But amid reports that Hagel is Obama's leading choice for the Pentagon, a group of activists, Senate staffers, and partisan journalists have already begun a campaign to paint him as an anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, anti-sanctions, defense cutter.
The Weekly Standard quoted an anonymous Senate aide calling Hagel an anti-Semite last week. Buzzfeed reported about Jewish leaders criticizing Hagel at a White House Hannukah party. The Washington Post ran an editorial today entitled, "Chuck Hagel is not the right choice for defense secretary." The Post's Right Turn blog has been collecting and documenting opposition to Hagel in the Jewish community, including from the Anti-Defamation League.
On Thursday, the Emergency Committee for Israel, which counts among its board members Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol, will begin running this television ad criticizing Hagel's opposition to unilateral sanctions against Iran. "For secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel is not a responsible option," the ad claims.
The effort to intimidate the White House into not nominating Hagel seems similar to the successful effort that ended only one week ago to convince the White House it would be too time-consuming and troublesome to seek Senate confirmation of U.N. ambassador Susan Rice for secretary of state. But while the actual Senate opposition to Hagel is not as strong as it was for Rice, his ability to fight the negative publicity campaign is also minimal next to the resources Rice had at her disposal.
Hagel has no large staff, no official administration position, and no communications infrastructure that is actively working to push back against bad press. The Cable spoke with several of Hagel's friends and former staffers, and they are starting to organize an effort to defend the former Nebraska senator, who they believe is being treated unfairly.
"Those misrepresenting Senator Hagel's positions on this are in the gutter," said Andrew Parasiliti, who was Hagel's foreign policy advisor from 2001-2005 and is now editor of Al-Monitor. "That he is anti-Israel is complete nonsense, not at all supported by his record. He knows the issues and the players there as well as anyone in Washington. Those tossing around these accusations can't hold a candle to his record of service and expertise on national security."
Hagel supporters have also begun to circulate a memo called "Facts on Chuck Hagel," which is meant to rebut, among other things, the charge Hagel is not supportive enough of Israel because he has declined to sign several letters supported by some pro-Israel groups and because he once referred to the pro-Israel lobby as the "Jewish lobby."
"I don't think it's fair," Richard Armitage, former deputy secretary of state in the George W. Bush administration, told The Cable in an interview. "I've known him quite closely for the last 15 years and I've never heard him utter any anti-Semitic statement. If he used the term 'Jewish lobby, that's a poor choice of words and I'm sure he'll speak for himself on that."
Armitage also pushed back against the reports quoting anonymous sources criticizing Hagel's management style.
"I happen to know the guy. He's not owned by anybody, he happens to think for himself, and this apparently causes some fear in some cases. He's got an unerring bullshit sensor, he's got real stones, and he doesn't mind telling you what his opinion is, which will stand him in very good stead in the Pentagon if the president nominates him," Armitage said.
Other criticisms of Hagel include that he has made comments supporting smaller Pentagon budgets. But Armitage said that Pentagon budget cuts are coming with or without Hagel and that Hagel is perfectly prepared to oversee that process.
"Chuck Hagel might be just the guy to come in to steward the Pentagon through what's going to be a tough budget environment," he said. "He is a straight thinker, he thinks for himself, and if that makes him subject to criticism from either party, so be it."
If Hagel is nominated, a series of Republican foreign-policy heavyweights from previous administrations are preparing to come to his defense.
"Senator Hagel is one of the most well-respected and thoughtful voices on both foreign and domestic policy," retired Gen. Brent Scowcroft, a former Republican national security advisor, told The Cable. "At an uncertain time in America-with a significant debt burden, a polarized Congress, and a host of challenges facing the international community, I am confident Senator Hagel will provide a vibrant, no-nonsense voice of logic and leadership to the United States."
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John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.