New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer offered his blessing this morning after a 90-minute meeting with Hagel Monday, saying he approves of President Obama’s pick despite previous reservations on Middle East policy.
“When Senator Hagel’s name first surfaced as a potential nominee for secretary of Defense, I had genuine concerns over certain aspects of his record on Israel and Iran,” Schumer said in a written statement released this morning. “Once the president made his choice, however, I agreed to keep these reservations private until I had the opportunity to discuss them fully with Senator Hagel in person.
“Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.”
A former Nebraska Republican senator, Hagel has been criticized by staunch Israel backers, who have pointed to his opposition to Iran sanctions and his signature, or lack of signature, on a series of letters during his Senate tenure, indicating he backed talks with Hamas and didn’t want Hezbollah declared a terrorist organization.
Schumer is among the stauncher Israel supporters in the Democratic ranks, having criticized Obama for airing disputes with Israel too publicly.
Lack of support from Schumer, one of the Senate’s more influential Democrats, looked bad for Hagel. Schumer’s approval, on this issue in particular, might not indicate smooth sailing for Obama’s pick, but it irons out a major bump.
Here’s what Schumer had to say, point by point:
On Iran, Senator Hagel rejected a strategy of containment and expressed the need to keep all options on the table in confronting that country. But he didn’t stop there. In our conversation, Senator Hagel made a crystal-clear promise that he would do “whatever it takes” to stop Tehran from obtaining nuclear weapons, including the use of military force. He said his “top priority” as Secretary of Defense would be the planning of military contingencies related to Iran. He added that he has already received a briefing from the Pentagon on this topic.
In terms of sanctions, past statements by Senator Hagel sowed concerns that he considered unilateral sanctions against Iran to be ineffective. In our meeting, however, Senator Hagel clarified that he “completely” supports President Obama’s current sanctions against Iran. He added that further unilateral sanctions against Iran could be effective and necessary.
On Hezbollah, Senator Hagel stressed that – notwithstanding any letters he refused to sign in the past – he has always considered the group to be a terrorist organization.
On Hamas, I asked Senator Hagel about a letter he signed in March 2009 urging President Obama to open direct talks with that group’s leaders. In response, Senator Hagel assured me that he 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.
Hagel’s confirmation process will likely be rocky, nonetheless. As was the case for Obama’s other contentious nominees, Supreme Court justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, the most vociferous opposition has come from Republicans.
And that’s the ironic thing about Hagel’s nomination: Senate Republicans, not Democrats, have a problem with the former member of their own caucus. Meanwhile, the same rumblings aren’t being heard about Sen. John Kerry, Obama’s pick to become the next secretary of State, a partisan who ran as Democrats’ presidential nominee against George W. Bush in 2004.
Hagel’s comments and stances on Israel, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah have set off alarms among concerned Senate Republicans, but another part of his record irked them while he worked in the upper chamber: He opposed the Iraq War as forcefully as Kerry did at times, at one point alluding to presidential impeachment, ostracizing himself from his GOP colleagues on the predominant issue of Bush’s second term.
Schumer, of course, saw eye to eye with Hagel on the Iraq War. When it comes to Republicans, Hagel will have to overcome a rift that began before he left the Capitol.