Colin Powell (Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images )
WASHINGTON -- Retired Gen. Colin Powell offered a vigorous defense of Chuck Hagel’s nomination as the next Defense secretary, even as the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee added questions about Hagel’s temperament to lawmakers’ other concerns about the nominee, particularly his position on Israel.
Powell, former secretary of State to President George W. Bush and a widely respected member of the GOP, had voiced strong support for Hagel shortly after President Obama named the former Nebraska senator as his choice to replace Leon E. Panetta. On Sunday, Powell spelled out further why he regards Hagel as “superbly qualified” for the job.
In an extensive interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Powell lauded Hagel for what he called “a very, very distinguished public service record,” saying Hagel volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War, showed courage in quitting his post at the Veterans Administration to protest poor treatment of veterans, and led the USO, which provides morale and recreation services to troops, while running a private cellphone carrier company.
“So this is a guy who knows veterans, knows the troops, knows the USO,” said Powell, a retired four-star general in the Army. “And when people say, ‘Well, that doesn’t necessarily make him a good candidate for secretary of Defense,’ I’ll tell you who thinks that makes him a good candidate for secretary of Defense: the men and women in the armed forces of the United States and their parents who know that this is a guy will be very careful about putting their lives at risk, because he put his life at risk.”
Powell predicted that the Senate would confirm Hagel's nomination despite what are expected to be tough confirmation hearings, especially over Hagel’s past comments on issues related to Israel, a key American ally.
Among other things, Hagel has been criticized for failing to label Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization, and for referring in an interview for a 2008 book to a “Jewish lobby [that] intimidates a lot of people” on Capitol Hill, a statement that some have construed as anti-Semitic.
Powell called such criticism “disgraceful.”
Hagel is a “good supporter of Israel,” Powell said, adding that he believed the confirmation hearings would clear up Hagel’s views on Israel as well as other issues, such as how he might deal with looming cuts to the Pentagon’s budget.
“I have read some of the responses that he has already put together,” Powell said, “and I think he will make a very, very spirited defense of his position and I think he will be confirmed.”
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said another issue that will come up in the hearings is Hagel’s “overall temperament.”
“Is he suited to run a department or a big agency or a big entity like the Pentagon?” Corker asked on ABC’s “This Week.”
Corker did not elaborate but said, “I think there are numbers of staffers who are coming forth now just talking about the way he has dealt with them.”
In addition, Corker said he would pay particular attention to Hagel’s views on America’s nuclear posture, such as modernizing the country’s nuclear arsenal.
Hagel is also likely to face some hard questioning from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a fellow Vietnam veteran. Hagel worked as McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign chairman, but the two broke over the 2007 “surge” of additional troops to Iraq, and in 2008 Hagel endorsed Obama.
"I honored Chuck Hagel's service. He's a friend," McCain said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation." But there are “significant questions” that Hagel needs to answer, he said. Among them, "What is his view of America's role in the world? Whether he really believes that the surge was the worst blunder since the Vietnam War. That clearly is not correct; in fact, it's bizarre,” McCain said.
On ABC’s “This Week,” Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said he expected Hagel to come out of the confirmation hearings with strong support.
“I think this confirmation process will be a thorough evaluation of Chuck's positions,” Reed said. “But I think one thing that's terribly compelling -- and it goes to his credibility with the forces -- he's been a combat soldier. He's fought. He has literally walked in their boots. That, I think, will inspire great confidence in the military officers and enlisted men that he deals with, and women.”