WASHINGTON - Former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel was sworn in as defence secretary Wednesday, about 20 hours after he was confirmed by the Senate in the wake of the stir created by the surfacing of his two-year old remarks that India was using Afghanistan as a ‘second front’ against Pakistan.
The Senate voted 58-41 to approve Hagel, a Vietnam veteran, ending a long and acrimonious nomination process and clearing President Barack Barack Obama’s choice for the top post held by Leon Panetta.
Republicans had opposed Hagel, casting him as unqualified for the job, hostile toward Israel and soft on Iran. They said he was a radical far out of the mainstream.
Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican who was the main opponent to President Barack Obama’s nominee, indicated two weeks ago Hagel might have given still-undisclosed speeches to ‘extreme or radical groups’ or received money from foreign sources or defence contractors from 2008 to 2010.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Democrat, debunked Cruz’s second accusation, saying Hagel complied with the committee’s financial disclosure requirements and deserved to be confirmed as successor to Leon Panetta.
Senator John Cornyn, a Republican, said before the vote that he didn’t think Hagel was up to the job and called his worldview ‘dangerously misguided’. “I don’t think we want a secretary of defence that has to learn on the job,” Cronyn said.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Hagel had emerged from the nominating process with his reputation intact despite the Republican criticism and filibuster.
“Twelve days later, Senator Hagel’s exemplary record of service to his country remains untarnished,” Reid said on the Senate floor before the vote. “Senate Republicans have delayed for the better part of two weeks for one reason and one reason only: partisanship.”
Hagel’s confirmation comes as a great relief for the Obama Administration as his nomination was held up for weeks and the Democrats and the White House had to do a tough convincing act to get him approved by the Senate. Republicans have also been irked by Hagel’s views on NATO as he had in a speech questioned the utility and relevance of the US-led force.
Hagel faces multiple challenges including defence budget cuts, rapidly changing developments in the Middle East, increasing threat from North Korea besides the scheduled withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan in 2014. On Monday, a Washington-based conservative online news website released the 2011 speech of Hagel made at Cameron University. In the video, Hagel accused India of fomenting trouble for Pakistan from its posts in Afghanistan, which he described as New Delhi’s ‘second front’.
“India for some time has always used Afghanistan as a second front, and India has over the years financed problems for Pakistan on that side of the border…. And you can carry that into many dimensions, the point being (that) the tense, fragmented relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan has been there for many many years,” said Hagel.
According to reports, some Republicans led by Senator Cornyn was using Hagel’s remarks to demonstrate his unsuitability for the office. They had earlier based their opposition on Hagel’s reported remarks in a 2008 book that “US lawmakers were intimidated by a Jewish lobby” and his alleged opposition to a military strike against Iran. Cornyn, also the co-chair of the India Caucus in the Senate, reportedly circulated Hagel’s remarks to various leaders in the Indian-American community, who are often courted for their fundraising prowess.