President Barack Obama faces a growing dilemma in his choice of a new defense secretary to succeed Leon Panetta.
Having dropped United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and named Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, Obama runs the risk of appearing weak if he bows to political opposition again and chooses someone other than former Nebraska Republican senator Chuck Hagel to lead the Pentagon.
Picking another candidate would show for a second time “that the president’s important choices for personnel can be vetoed by two or three senators,” said Sean Kay, a professor of politics and government at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, who specializes in U.S. foreign and defense policy. “The White House will come out of this significantly weakened.”
If Obama sticks with Hagel in the face of opposition from an ad hoc coalition of Republican advocates of muscular defense policies, Democratic supporters of Israel and gay rights activists, though, Obama might be forced to spend political capital he needs for the bigger battle over the federal budget and deficit reduction.
The leading alternative at present is Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, according to a person familiar with the selection process, who asked for anonymity because the White House hasn’t announced the president’s pick. Another prospect is former Undersecretary of Defense for policy Michele Flournoy, which would enable Obama to break new ground by nominating the first woman for the top defense post. Former aides to President George W. Bush and Republican commentators opposed to Hagel have said they’d prefer either Carter or Flournoy.
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The choice has policy implications as well as political ones. Carter is an expert on managing the Defense Department’s byzantine bureaucracy and $600 billion-plus annual budget. Flournoy is a defense policy expert with close ties to Obama. Both, said one administration official who spoke on the the condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters, would cause the disciplined Obama White House less heartburn than would Hagel.
Hagel, 66, who met with Obama on Dec. 4 to discuss the Pentagon job, served with his brother Tom as an enlisted man in Vietnam and returned home with two Purple Hearts and a conviction that, as he put it in a 2002 interview, “war is the last resort that we, a nation, a people, call upon to settle a dispute.”
The criticism of Hagel drew a counter-attack from a bipartisan group of former U.S. national security advisers — James L. Jones, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Frank Carlucci. “Hagel is a man of unshakable integrity and wisdom who has served his country in the most distinguished manner in peace and war,” they wrote in a letter published in the Washington Post on Dec. 25.
Supporters argue that his service record — he would be the first former enlisted soldier to run the Pentagon — and his blunt manner — “nonsense” is a word he frequently uses — would serve him well in curbing defense spending and standing up to big contractors and their congressional allies, as well as four-star general officers who have no time for sergeants.
He’s drawn criticism from some Republicans for his public opposition to the Bush administration’s troop surge during the Iraq war, questioning unilateral economic sanctions against Iran, and calling the defense budget “bloated,” and also from some members of both parties for citing the influence of the “Jewish lobby” on behalf of Israel.
Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Thune of South Dakota have expressed concerns about Hagel and have promised tough confirmation hearings. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, also a Republican, has said he wouldn’t support a Hagel nomination.
“However bad Obama’s foreign policy is, Hagel is to the left of Obama,” William Kristol, who was chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle, said in a Dec. 14 podcast. Kristol is editor of the conservative Weekly Standard.
The rise of interest groups and individuals who oppose White House Cabinet nominations is a recent phenomenon, said Martha Kumar, professor of political science at Towson University in Maryland, who’s tracked presidential transitions.
“Once a name is put forward, you’ve groups lining up pretty quickly and that can become a point that opposition lawmakers use,” Kumar said in a phone interview.
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