White House wavers on Hagel, considers others for Defense

Nati Harnik/AP file photo

Besieged by criticism from right and left, and considerable skepticism from his former Senate colleagues, Chuck Hagel appears to be following the path of Susan Rice as a trial-balloon nominee who finds himself quickly losing altitude in Washington. And as happened with Rice, the White House  is now signaling that it may soon puncture Hagel's hopes.

Just as occurred with Rice, the U.N. ambassador whose prospective nomination as secretary of State—leaked to the media—flamed out in the face of widespread criticism of her, President Obama appears to be rethinking his choice for Defense secretary.

A senior administration official told National Journal on Sunday that it was “fair” to say Obama is considering candidates other than Hagel for Defense secretary, in particular Michele Flournoy, who was under secretary of Defense for policy in Obama's first term, and Ashton Carter, the current deputy Defense secretary. Only a week ago, Bloomberg News reported that Hagel was Obama’s top choice.

The White House's revised characterization of Hagel’s standing came after what was, for the former Republican senator, a particularly discouraging series of comments on the Sunday-morning talk shows. Outgoing Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent, told CNN’s “State of the Union” that it would be “a very tough confirmation process,” while on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Hagel’s former fellow Republican in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, said Hagel’s would be “a challenging nomination.” Graham added: “I don’t think he’s going to get many Republican votes.”

While much of the criticism centers on questions of whether Hagel has been a strong enough supporter of Israel and tough enough on Iran--as well as past comments he made about gay people--he is also paying, in part, for his bluntness and bravery in advocating unpopular positions during his 12 years in the Senate. Hagel’s gutsy and prescient stand against his own party and President George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq invasion—and his criticism of the war’s management afterwards—all but cost him his political career, turning him from a possible GOP presidential contender into a pariah within his party.

As early as the spring of 2002, as stories began to circulate that Bush was intent on going to war with Iraq, Hagel, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, began warning against the overextension of U.S. power. "We can't just say, 'Let's go take Saddam Hussein out,'" he said at a luncheon in June 2002. "I suppose that militarily we could. But you'd better understand what's coming, if we do. We could inflame the Arab-Muslim world like nothing we've ever seen."

Hagel also endeared himself to Obama with foreign-policy advice when the latter was a freshman senator, and later recommended that the Democratic presidential candidate pick Hagel’s longtime ally in the Senate, Joe Biden, as his running mate. (The two had worked together to tone down the war authorization act passed by Congress before the Iraq invasion.)

But now, in what appears to be another failed trial balloon, Obama may be calculating that the political cost of pushing through a Hagel nomination at a time of critical talks over fiscal issues may be too high. A similar pattern played out with Rice. In mid-November, The Washington Post reported that, according to senior administration officials, Rice would “almost certainly” get the State Department job. But by early December, as it became clear that Rice’s support in the Senate was tenuous at best, a senior administration official signaled that the president was backing off, telling National Journal that Obama was “genuinely conflicted” between choosing Rice and Sen. John Kerry. Rice ultimately took the hint and withdrew, and Kerry was nominated last week.

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