Hagel, if confirmed, would take over at the Pentagon with automatic defence spending cuts due to kick in on March 1 and with US officials debating how many – if any – troops should remain in Afghanistan after combat troops withdraw in 2014.
A decorated Vietnam War veteran and a former Republican senator, he has been derided by his own party’s lawmakers for being too dovish on hot-button issues, such as Iran, as he has opposed US-led sanctions on the Islamic republic. He has also stirred the ire of former Senate colleague and 2008 presidential contender John McCain for opposing the 2007 troop surge in Iraq.
The nominee took a tongue lashing on last Thursday at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing – the Senate is tasked with confirming or rejecting him – but former Democratic senator Evan Bayh said his confirmation is still likely.
“At the end of the day ... he (Hagel)’s going to be confirmed as secretary of defence,” Bayh said on Fox News on Sunday, adding that there’s a strong presumption among the Senate that presidents should choose their own cabinet, although some Republican lawmakers will still vote “No”. He echoed the arguments of some political experts who contended that Hagel’s rejection is unlikely.
Critics blasted Hagel for Thursday’s sub-par performance at the Senate hearing, pointing out that the nominee seemed grossly uninformed on US military and foreign policies.
However, Bayh echoed the voice of other supporters who maintained that Hagel’s being unprepared for the hearing does not reflect on his competence as a potential defence chief.
Speaking on Sunday’s NBC talk show “Meet the Press,” New York Times columnist David Brooks questioned whether President Barack Obama would have confidence in the nominee, based on his showing at the Senate hearing.
But US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey told “Meet the Press” that in his conversations with the nominee, the latter had shown an understanding of the issues.
Obama campaign advisor and former White House spokesman Robert Gibbs underscored Hagel’s experience as an infantryman, asserting that he would fare well as a defence secretary.
Critics contended Hagel’s nomination bucks the trend of second- term presidents who usually nominate a figure from the opposing camp to demonstrate a move toward the center, adding that Hagel is a reflection of President Obama’s left-of-center goals outlined in his inauguration speech. Leon Panetta, the outgoing US defense secretary, told NBC’s “ Meet the Press” on Sunday that he was disappointed that the Senate hearing on Hagel’s nomination focused so much on his past statements on Iran, Israel and other matters, instead of on today’s challenges the United States faces, such as the war in Afghanistan, the fight against terrorism, and the budget cuts.
Panetta slammed the Republicans for playing politics on Hagel’s nomination. “It’s pretty obvious that the political knives were out for Chuck Hagel,” he observed. “This was eight hours,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said, referring to Thursday’s confirmation hearing in which Hagel faced tough questions. “Give the guy a break. I thought he did pretty good,” Reid told the ABC programme “This Week.”
Hagel’s nomination appears likely to clear its first hurdle – approval by the Senate Armed Services Committee – on a straight party-line vote. The earliest that vote could come is Thursday.