The White House on Thursday came to the defense of former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel against critics who have attacked his record on Israel and Iran in a bid to head off his possible nomination as President Barack Obama’s next Pentagon chief.
With Hagel considered a leading choice for defense secretary, the administration joined allies rallying to support him against the onslaught, led by some pro-Israel groups and neo-conservatives, but also including former colleagues on Capitol Hill.
It was the second time since Obama’s re-election last month that the White House has found itself forced to defend a Cabinet candidate who has yet to be nominated for anything, a source of frustration for the president’s advisers.
Obama’s aides have been preparing for a realignment of his national security team, possibly by Friday, sources familiar with the process have said. But with Obama focused on the “fiscal cliff” standoff and the Hagel controversy also fueling concerns, an announcement could easily be delayed.
Some American Jewish leaders contend Hagel, who left the Senate in 2008, at times opposed Israel’s interests, voting several times against U.S. sanctions on Iran, and made disparaging remarks about the influence of what he called a “Jewish lobby” in Washington.
White House spokesman Jay Carney made clear Obama’s faith in the former lawmaker, who is a decorated Vietnam war veteran.
“Senator Hagel fought and bled for his country. He served his country well. He was an excellent senator,” Carney said, without acknowledging that Hagel was under consideration to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. He did not address any of the specific criticisms aimed at Hagel.
The controversy over Hagel’s possible nomination comes after U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew from consideration for secretary of state last week amid withering attacks from Republicans over her role in initial explanations of the deadly September assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
“We’ve been through this before with Ambassador Rice where there’s an effort to go after somebody,” Carney said.
The drumbeat of criticism against Hagel could prompt Obama to reconsider whether it would be worth the likely Senate confirmation battle. But the White House has given no sign of dropping him the president’s short list.
Obama himself has been criticized by some Jewish leaders for his approach to close U.S. ally Israel, especially given his strained relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.