Schumer: I Support Hagel for SecDef

In a 90 minute Chuck to Chuck, Hagel convinces a prominent pro-Israel Senator to forgive his past follies. It may all but clinch the nomination for the Defense Secretary hopeful.

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Alex Wong / Getty Images

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) speaks to the media during a news conference in Washington on Jan, 4, 2013.

Although Republicans have groused about President Obama’s choice of Chuck Hagel’s to be his Secretary of Defense, the real disaster scenario for Obama’s pick hasn’t involved opposition from the right. Even John McCain, whose lead Senate Republicans follow on foreign policy, is agnostic but not outright opposed to Hagel. That’s in contrast to McCain’s immediate and unwavering opposition to Susan Rice as Secretary of State.

Lately it had become clear that the greater threat to Hagel came from Democrats. Hagel can withstand charges from the neocon right that he’s “soft” on Israel. (Among other things, Hagel has complained about the influence of “the Jewish lobby” in Washington, and opposed various sanctions measures against Iran before he left the Senate.) But when prominent pro-Israel Democratic Senators like Barbara Boxer and Chuck Schumer recently expressed misgivings about Hagel’s record–not only on Israel, but gay rights–it was possible to imagine him meeting the same fate as Rice, whom the president chose to abandon rather than fight over. Yesterday, Hagel sent Boxer a letter affirming his support for Israel, calling his “Jewish lobby” remark a “very poor choice of words” and making clear that he supports allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly in the military. That was enough to assuage Boxer, who then endorsed his nomination.

But the Schumer test still remained. Given his seniority within the Senate, and his close association with Israel and Jewish issues, Schumer’s opposition might have turned several Democrats against Hagel–enough to create a critical mass that could bring down his opposition. But after a meeting with Hagel yesterday, Schumer has issued the following statement in support of him:

When Senator Hagel’s name first surfaced as a potential nominee for Secretary of Defense, I had genuine concerns over certain aspects of his record on Israel and Iran. Once the President made his choice, however, I agreed to keep these reservations private until I had the opportunity to discuss them fully with Senator Hagel in person.

In a meeting Monday, Senator Hagel spent approximately 90 minutes addressing my concerns one by one. It was a very constructive session. Senator Hagel could not have been more forthcoming and sincere.

Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.

In our meeting Monday, Senator Hagel clarified a number of his past statements and positions and elaborated on several others.

On Iran, Senator Hagel rejected a strategy of containment and expressed the need to keep all options on the table in confronting that country. But he didn’t stop there. In our conversation, Senator Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do “whatever it takes” to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force. He said his “top priority” as Secretary of Defense would be the planning of military contingencies related to Iran. He added that he has already received a briefing from the Pentagon on this topic.

In terms of sanctions, past statements by Senator Hagel sowed concerns that he considered unilateral sanctions against Iran to be ineffective. In our meeting, however, Senator Hagel clarified that he “completely” supports President Obama’s current sanctions against Iran. He added that further unilateral sanctions against Iran could be effective and necessary.

On Hezbollah, Senator Hagel stressed that—notwithstanding any letters he refused to sign in the past—he has always considered the group to be a terrorist organization.

On Hamas, I asked Senator Hagel about a letter he signed in March 2009 urging President Obama to open direct talks with that group’s leaders. In response, Senator Hagel assured me that he today believes there should be no negotiations with Hamas, Hezbollah or any other terrorist group until they renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Senator Hagel volunteered that he has always supported Israel’s right to retaliate militarily in the face of terrorist attacks by Hezbollah or Hamas. He understood the predicament Israel is in when terrorist groups hide rocket launchers among civilian populations and stage attacks from there. He supported Israel’s right to defend herself even in those difficult circumstances.

In keeping with our promises to help equip Israel, Senator Hagel pledged to work towards the on-time delivery of the F-35 joint strike fighters to Israel, continue the cooperation between Israel and the U.S. on Iron Dome, and recommend to the President that we refuse to join in any NATO exercises if Turkey should continue to insist on excluding Israel from them.  Senator Hagel believes Israel must maintain its Qualitative Military Edge.

Regarding his unfortunate use of the term “Jewish lobby” to refer to certain pro-Israel groups, Senator Hagel understands the sensitivity around such a loaded term and regrets saying it.

I know some will question whether Senator Hagel’s assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post. But I don’t think so. Senator Hagel realizes the situation in the Middle East has changed, with Israel in a dramatically more endangered position than it was even five years ago. His views are genuine, and reflect this new reality.

On issues related to female and LGBT service members, Senator Hagel provided key assurances as well. He said he is committed to implementing the Shaheen amendment to improve the reproductive health of military women. He also supports the full repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

In general, I believe any President deserves latitude in selecting his own advisors. While the Senate confirmation process must be allowed to run its course, it is my hope that Senator Hagel’s thorough explanations will remove any lingering controversy regarding his nomination.

Unless Republicans like McCain are prepared to severely escalate their opposition to Hagel, it looks like he’s in the clear.