President Obama is expected to unveil the nomination today of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska as the next secretary of defense, replacing Leon Panetta. A Vietnam War veteran and three-term member of the Senate, Hagel has faced criticism from right-wing foes over his positions on Israel and dealing with Iran, as well as from progressive critics for making denigrating comments in 1998 about gays in government, for which he only recently apologized. Hagel may face an uphill nomination battle due to opposition from fellow Republicans and hawkish Democrats unnerved by his stances on Israel, Iran and military spending. We’re joined Ali Gharib, senior editor for "Open Zion," a Middle East blog on The Daily Beast’s website. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to look at Chuck Hagel. President Obama is expected to nominate the former Republican senator from Nebraska to become the next defense secretary. Hagel is a Vietnam veteran who represented Nebraska in the Senate from 1997 to 2009. He may face an uphill nomination battle due to opposition from fellow Republicans. After initially supporting the Iraq invasion, he later joined Democrats criticizing the war. He also supported cuts to the military budget. Several prominent Republican lawmakers and commentators have criticized Hagel’s past comments about Israel. In 2008, he was quoted as saying, quote, "I’m not an Israeli senator, I’m a United States senator," and, quote, "The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," unquote.
Well, on Sunday, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham criticized Hagel on CNN.
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: Chuck Hagel is out of the mainstream of thinking, I believe, on most issues regarding foreign policy. I expect the president to nominate people different than—than I would think. I’m going to vote for Senator Kerry. I don’t agree with him a lot, but I think he’s very much in the mainstream of thought. Chuck Hagel, if confirmed to be secretary of defense, would be the most antagonistic secretary of defense toward the state of Israel in our nation’s history. Not only has he said you should directly negotiate with Iran, sanctions won’t work, that Israel must negotiate with Hamas, a organization, terrorist group, that lobs thousands of rockets into Israel, he also was one of 12 senators who refused to sign a letter to the European Union trying to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. He has long severed his ties with the Republican Party. This is an in-your-face nomination by the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel. I don’t know what his management experience is regarding the Pentagon—little, if any. So I think it’s an incredibly controversial choice.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to Meet the Press last month, President Obama defended Senator Hagel’s record.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’ve served with Chuck Hagel. I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate, somebody who has served this country with valor in Vietnam, and is somebody who’s currently serving on my Intelligence Advisory Board and doing an outstanding job.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, to talk more about the nomination of former senator, Republican Chuck Hagel, as secretary of defense, we’re joined now by Ali Gharib. He’s senior editor for "Open Zion," a Middle East blog on The Daily Beast website. He’s been following the controversy around Hagel’s nomination today in his writings.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ali.
ALI GHARIB: Thank you, Amy. It’s great to be here.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the controversy around Hagel being named today by President Obama, or nominated.
ALI GHARIB: Well, he—they floated his—the administration floated his name last month, and since then there’s been sort of a firestorm of criticism that’s come mostly from right-wing Republicans, but also a little bit from pro-Israel Democratic hawks, that is—that’s been based around his views on Israel, his views on Iran, some comments he made about a decade-and-a-half ago about a gay nominee to be ambassador, and then also, just in general, a right-wing Republican, conservative voting record in his two terms in the Senate. And so, all these—all these attacks have been coming for about a month now. And just at the end of the month, Obama finally defended him, and we found out on Friday that he was confirmed to be the likely nominee, probably today, maybe tomorrow morning.
AMY GOODMAN: So talk about his record. What is the controversy about? I mean, talking about the three I’s here: Israel, Iran, Iraq.
ALI GHARIB: Yeah, so, a lot of Republicans—there’s been a lot of articles written recently that say that Republicans don’t like him because he was the first major Republican figure to turn on the Iraq war. And in fact he did vote to authorize the war but was more skeptical than most, going in. It was reported that he voiced a lot of private concerns about that.
And then, going on to Israel, he actually has a mainstream voting record, where he’s voted to, for example, support military aid for Israel, but he’s spoken critically about some Israeli policies, and he’s also refused to do the kind of posturing and preening that a lot of people on Capitol Hill do, signing every letter that AIPAC puts out.
On Iran, he has had some skepticism about the efficacy of sanctions, which I think is pretty well founded, because we’ve heaped on sanctions, and it hasn’t worked yet. And he also has expressed concern about the potential consequences of a military strike and that we haven’t talked about that at all in our national discourse. I think that’s a pretty well-founded concern, too. And so, he’s been repeatedly attacked for these things, was called an anti-Semite in the Weekly Standard and by a few Israel lobby groups. And it just kind of hasn’t let up at all.
AMY GOODMAN: So let’s go to the man himself. Let’s go first to Chuck Hagel on Iraq. After initially supporting the war, as you said, Hagel became a vocal critic. In 2007, he joined Democrats opposing President Bush’s troop surge.
CHUCK HAGEL: There is no strategy. This is a ping-pong game with American lives. These young men and women that we put in Anbar province, in Iraq, in Baghdad, are not beans; they’re real lives. And we better be damn sure we know what we’re doing—all of us—before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Hagel speaking in 2007. That same year, he was questioned by Sam Husseini of Washington Stakeout about Iraq.
SAM HUSSEINI: Do you regret your war vote? And do you think the administration believed bad intelligence, or did they work to rig it?
CHUCK HAGEL: Well, if you’re referring to the resolution, the Iraq War Resolution in 2002, that was not a resolution to go to war; that was a resolution that would empower the president of the United States to take military action if it was the last course of action he could take, the last resort, after exhausting all the diplomatic efforts. So, I think we need to be clear on that. It wasn’t a resolution to go to war or not go to war.
Second, your question about do I regret it, yes. If I had to vote again, I would vote against it. The fact is that the war in Iraq was a war of choice. Saddam Hussein was not an imminent threat to the United States or anyone else. The fact is, containment was working. The fact is that he didn’t control 60 percent of his country. We had overflights in the north and the south. Those were F-16s that would fly out of Saudi Arabia. The fact is, he was slowly strangling in the 40 percent of his country. That was a needless commitment of American blood and treasury. And if that vote was held again today, I’d vote against it.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Chuck Hagel. Ali Gharib?
ALI GHARIB: Yeah, you know, I think that that sort of—that sort of skepticism about—that he showed later on Iraq is exactly why a lot of his critics are attacking him on Iran. You had this really funny thing where Abraham Foxman, the head of the Anti-Defamation League, came out in two separate interviews on the same day a few weeks ago, and in one of them he said that Hagel’s comments about the, quote-unquote, "Jewish lobby" were borderline anti-Semitic, and on the other one he said, "It sounds like he’s open to the military option on Iran, so we don’t see any reason to oppose him."
AMY GOODMAN: I’ve got the quote. Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League issuing this statement about Hagel’s possible appointment, he said, quote, "Chuck Hagel would not be the first, second, or third choice for the American Jewish community’s friends of Israel. His record relating to Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship is, at best, disturbing, and at worst, very troubling. The sentiments he’s expressed about the Jewish lobby border on anti-Semitism in the genre of professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt and former president Jimmy Carter."
ALI GHARIB: Right. And on the same day that he made that statement, he did an interview with this Israeli newspaper called The Times of Israel where he said that Chuck Hagel has come around to the president’s position on supporting keeping the military option on Iran open, and therefore there was no—there wasn’t enough cause for concern to oppose his nomination as defense secretary. So, that kind of gives you an idea of what all this Israel and Iran rhetoric has been all about. And it’s about taking a hawkish perspective on Iran. And I think a lot of those people are in for kind of a rude awakening because, as we’ve seen from some of these videos that you’ve been showing, Chuck Hagel is not a guy who’s exactly averse to saying out loud what he’s thinking.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to take on another issue. During an appearance on MSNBC’s Meet the Press last month, President Obama was asked about comments Senator Hagel made 14 years ago regarding President Bill Clinton’s nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg, James Hormel. Senator Hagel had questioned his qualifications for the position because he was, quote, "openly, aggressively gay," unquote. Hagel apologized for the remark last month. This is President Obama’s response.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: With respect to the particular comment that you quoted, he apologized for it. And I think it’s a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people’s attitudes about, you know, gays and lesbians serving our country. And that’s something that I’m very proud to have led. And I think that anybody who serves in my administration understands my attitude and position on those issues.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s President Obama. Ali Gharib, your response?
ALI GHARIB: Yeah, and, you know, there’s been some lingering sort of gay rights lobby groups and individuals who oppose Chuck Hagel, but some of the larger groups, Human Rights Campaign, which is probably the most influential gay equality group in Washington, came around after Hagel’s apology and said that they now welcome him into the fold and consider him an ally for gay equality. And these—there are—
AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Hormel was not as generous.
ALI GHARIB: He wasn’t as generous. He gave sort of an equivocal acceptance of—of Hagel’s apology, where he said—he suggested strongly that it was out of political expediency, but said he hopes that the remarks are genuine and that he really has come around. So it’s been—it’s been a mixed bag for Hagel with a lot of the gay groups.
There was Ambassador Guest, who was an ambassador—another Clinton ambassador in the late '90s, wrote an op-ed today in Politico — he was another openly gay ambassador — where he said he worked with Chuck Hagel and that he didn't take great issue with him.
And these are progressive concerns with Hagel’s record that should be addressed in a confirmation hearing. There’s the issue of gay equality, which does bear on personnel issues in the military, because now there’s open service there, and also LGBT family rights for servicemembers. And then, you know, there are other issues like Hagel’s opposition to abortion. He’s previously opposed a bill to—a bill that ended up passing, that allows women servicemembers to obtain abortions on base hospitals, even paying out of their own pocket. Hagel opposed that. And so, he should be vigorously questioned on those matters.
And another one would be climate change, because he’s sort of dabbled in climate change skepticism, but again, it’s a mixed record, and he’s gone back and forth. And with the Pentagon being such a huge consumer of fossil fuels and polluter, it’s really important that these—these are legitimate progressive concerns that should be addressed in confirmation by liberal senators.
AMY GOODMAN: On the USA PATRIOT Act?
ALI GHARIB: On the USA PATRIOT Act, I believe he voted for it and has some—and does have lingering concerns about those things.
AMY GOODMAN: But voted against restoring habeas corpus to all prisoners detained at Guantánamo?
ALI GHARIB: Yeah, yeah, so it’s a mixed record, and those things should—should be carefully examined.
AMY GOODMAN: What about President Obama choosing a Republican to head defense? I mean, he had Gates before. Is there a sense that Republicans are better on so-called defense or on war in the Obama administration?
ALI GHARIB: Yeah, well, you know, this has been an issue that I’ve been kind of arguing about with a lot of my liberal Democratic friends. I’m not really a partisan myself, so I could care less which party holds Cabinet positions. But for a lot of them, I think it’s a point of pride, especially because this has been a continuing Republican attack against the Democrats, is that they’re weak on national security issues, and that’s led a lot of Democrats to pick Republicans for these posts. I’m personally not that concerned about it, and there were some really great liberal Democratic candidates for this job who would have been good.
I do think that for the kind of unique challenges of the next two years—withdrawing from Afghanistan, paring down the military budget, and getting a sensible American policy on Iran—these are some of our biggest upcoming challenges as a country—I actually think Hagel is pretty well suited to those, and especially on something like paring down the defense budget. I’m not so sure that a liberal Democrat would be able to work Republican members of Congress to build alliances the same way on those issues and, generally, you know, pull the levers of Washington to get defense cuts through. And so, you know, it’s entirely possible that a Michèle Flournoy or an Ashton Carter could have—
AMY GOODMAN: And explain who Michèle Flournoy is.
ALI GHARIB: Sorry, Michèle Flournoy is a former number three at the Pentagon, and Ashton Carter is the current number two. And they were both frequently named as the two other likely candidates for the post. And, you know, it’s entirely possible that both of them could have done the job. But the politics of cutting the defense budget being what they are, I think that it is probably going to be politically helpful to have a conservative Republican in that role.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much, Ali Gharib, senior editor for "Open Zion," a Middle East blog at The Daily Beast website, and we’ll link to it at democracynow.org.
When we come back, we go to the rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, where a 16-year-old woman was gang-raped by members of the local high school football team. Anonymous hacked the website of one of the football team members and put it out, a video, online, has young men talking about what happened to this woman. Stay with us.