A group of more than 50 Jewish community leaders and top defense and foreign policy experts have signed a letter expressing strong support for Colin Kahl, President Joe Biden’s nominee for undersecretary of defense for policy. The letter, obtained by the Forward, comes as Republican-affiliated groups are targeting Kahl, a former Obama administration official, over his past comments on the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran and the U.S.-Israel alliance.
“Given Dr. Kahl’s strong support of Israel and firm approach to Iran, we strongly oppose the smear campaign against him and the use of his nomination as a proxy for re-litigating the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” the group writes of the Iran deal in the letter, addressed to members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The committee is expected to vote next week on Kahl’s nomination. The undersecretary position is one of the most influential posts shaping policy at the Pentagon.
During a confirmation hearing earlier this month, Kahl faced sharp questioning from Senate Republicans over his role in promoting the nuclear deal and his criticisms of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran. Kahl served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East in former President Barack Obama’s first term, and as national security adviser to then-Vice President Joe Biden in the second term.
During Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, Kahl faced criticism over bis co-writing of the Democratic National Committee’s platform that initially omitted Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
An effort is currently underway to sink the nomination in the Armed Services committee before it reaches the Senate floor for a vote. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, could be the deciding vote on the 26-member panel, which is evenly split along party lines, as is the Senate itself. Last month, the White House withdrew a separate nomination, of Neera Tandon to head the Office of Management and Budget, after Manchin joined Republican opposition, citing her past tweets against Democrats and Republicans alike.
Last week, the group Christians United for Israel ran a series of full-page ads in a number of newspapers across West Virginia, calling on people to urge Manchin to oppose Kahl. The Republican Jewish Coalition hosted a briefing for aides to the committee to give them background information. The Zionist Organization of America alsoissued a statement opposing Kahl’s nomination.
In the letter to committee members, the former officials describe Kahl’s record in the Obama administration as being committed to the U.S.-Israel relationship and said that he understands the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.
“He is committed first and foremost to furthering America’s national-security interests in the Middle East, which includes thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, nefarious regional activities and aggression, proliferation of ballistic missiles, and human rights violations, while ensuring the security of our allies and partners, especially Israel,” the group asserted. They cite Kahl’s more than 100 meetings with senior Israeli defense officials and 13 trips to Israel during his time at the Pentagon, as well as his role in advocating for funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
The letter was spearheaded by Daniel Shapiro and Martin Indyk, former U.S ambassadors to Israel; Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense under Obama; and Halie Soifer, chief executive officer of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. The 51 signatories include former ambassadors, former members of Congress and former administration officials; most are Democrats, but there are two Republicans — Eliot Cohen, a State Department official under President George W. Bush; and Richard Burt, former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and national security advisor to the late Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaigns.
Shapiro told the Forward that he wanted to show that Kahl has “the deep respect” of defense and foreign policy experts and Jewish community leaders for his “strong commitment and many accomplishments in strengthening U.S.-Israel security cooperation.”
“Kahl has been unfairly and ludicrously smeared as anti-Israel,” Shapiro said. “People who know him and have worked with him wanted to set the record straight.”
Soifer, of the Jewish Democratic group, accused Republicans and the conservative media of “cynically and transparently using Kahl’s confirmation vote to re-litigate the JCPOA,” using shorthand for the 2015 Iran deal.
“The allegations against Kahl have no basis in truth, as evidenced by his record, testimony, and the strong support he’s received from a bipartisan group of pro-Israel, national security, and Jewish leaders,” she added.
Abe Foxman, former national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview on Wednesday that the Christian group’s tarnishing of Kahl’s name and painting him as being antagonistic towards Israel is “absurd.”
“You can disagree on what he perceives to be the best interests for America,” Foxman said. “But that doesn’t make him anti-Israel — in the same way that Israelis who believe what’s in the best interests of Israel doesn’t make them anti-American.”
Foxman, who is on the list of candidates being considered as the Biden administration’s envoy to combat antisemitism, suggested that the campaign against Kahl is simply a “continuation of politicizing American support for Israel and making it partisan rather than bipartisan” and an “indirect attack on Biden” because he’s the president’s choice.
The full letter: