Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) sought to quash opposition to his nomination… (Olivier Douliery, Abaca…)
WASHINGTON— After weeks of uncertainty, the White House appeared to gain the advantage in the battle over former Sen. Chuck Hagel's nomination as Defense secretary when a pivotal senator voiced support and Hagel distanced himself from past positions on Israel and Iran.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer's decision Tuesday to back the former Nebraska senator is likely to persuade some senators still uncertain about President Obama's choice for his second-term national security team. Schumer, a New York Democrat, is an influential voice on U.S.-Israel relations.
In recent days, Hagel has taken the offensive, meeting with former Senate colleagues in an effort to squelch opposition. Many Republicans have not forgiven their fellow Republican for criticizing the 2007 surge of U.S. troops to Iraq and for endorsing Obama over Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in the 2008 presidential race.
At least one Republican, Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, maintained his opposition after meeting with Hagel. Inhofe is the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is expected to consider Hagel's nomination next month.
"We are simply too philosophically opposed on the issues for me to support his nomination," Inhofe said, citing disagreements on Israel and Iran, as well as cuts to the defense budget and the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
But the White House and Hagel, who was wounded as a soldier in Vietnam, shored up crucial Democratic support this week by making concessions aimed at dispelling criticism that he was insufficiently committed to ensuring Israel's security and to using military force if necessary to stop Iran from building or obtaining nuclear weapons.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the second-ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, called Schumer's support "a very strong signal that not only did he work with Chuck Hagel but that he is very comfortable with his ability to handle the role of secretary of Defense."
Schumer's endorsement came a day after Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) also backed Hagel. She released a letter he had written in which he explained his views on Israel and Iran in detail. He also wrote that he regretted using the term "Jewish lobby," a term that many find offensive, in a 2006 interview to refer to U.S. supporters of Israel.
"I've acknowledged this was a poor choice of words," Hagel wrote. "I recognize this language can be construed as anti-Israel. I know the pro-Israel lobby is comprised of both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans. Most Americans, myself included, are overwhelmingly supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel strategic and security relationship."
In his letter, Hagel also supported expanding the rights of homosexuals in the military, another issue that threatened his support among Democrats in the Senate.
Schumer announced his backing for Hagel a day after meeting with him at the White House. He said Hagel had vowed to do "whatever it takes" to stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons and to make planning military contingencies against Iran his "top priority" at the Pentagon.
Pentagon planners already have detailed plans for war against Iran, if such a conflict were ordered by the White House. They also have moved substantial air and naval forces to the Persian Gulf over the last year to signal to Tehran that the United States is prepared to use force if negotiations and diplomatic pressure fail to halt the Iranian nuclear program, which Tehran says is for peaceful purposes.
Even so, Hagel's public commitment could be seen as a shift. He has said that use of force should be a last resort under any circumstances and, like Obama, has favored diplomatic steps to halt Iran's nuclear work.
Schumer said Hagel repeatedly pledged support for Israel, and for isolating militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah, during their meeting.
"I know some will question whether Sen. Hagel's assurances are merely attempts to quiet critics as he seeks confirmation to this critical post. But I don't think so," Schumer said. "Sen. 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."
Schumer suggested that Hagel had retreated from his long-standing opposition to unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran. Hagel, who voted against several sanctions bills aimed at Iran when he was in the Senate, previously had argued that such efforts were counterproductive.
"Sen. Hagel clarified that he completely supports President Obama's current sanctions against Iran," Schumer said. "He added that further unilateral sanctions against Iran could be effective and necessary."
Schumer said Hagel also clarified his decision not to sign a 2009 letter, backed by other senators, that called on the European Union to list Hezbollah, an anti-Israel militant group based in Lebanon, as a terrorist organization.
"Sen. Hagel stressed that — notwithstanding any letters he refused to sign in the past — he has always considered the group to be a terrorist organization," Schumer said.
He also pushed back at criticism that Hagel had called for direct negotiations with Hamas, the Palestinian militant group based in the Gaza Strip. Hagel "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."