x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Obama picks Republican Chuck Hagel as secretary of defence

Former Nebraska senator is likely to face some searching questions over his views on America's relationships with Iran and Israel.

WASHINGTON // The US president, Barack Obama, nominated Chuck Hagel as his next defence secretary, setting up a potentially contentious confirmation fight over the former Republican senator's views on Israel and Iran.

Mr Hagel, 66, served in the Senate with Mr Obama and the two grew close during congressional trips overseas.

A moderate Republican and decorated Vietnam veteran, Mr Hagel would add a whiff of bipartisanship to Mr Obama's cabinet if confirmed. But the former Nebraska legislator has faced withering criticism from Congress - Republicans in particular - since emerging as the front-runner for the Pentagon post. Still, Republicans have stopped short of saying they might try to block the nomination.

Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, said he was reserving judgment on whether to support Mr Hagel. But he predicted that the former Nebraska senator would face serious questions about his stands on Iran and Israel.

Any nominee must have "a full understanding of our close relationship with our Israeli allies, the Iranian threat and the importance of having a robust military", Mr McConnell said.

Mr Hagel has criticised discussion of a military strike by either the US or Israel against Iran. He has also backed efforts to bring Iran to the table for talks on future peace in Afghanistan. Some legislators have been troubled by his comments and actions on Israel, including his reference to the "Jewish lobby" in the United States.

"This is a controversial pick," said Lindsey Graham, a Republican senator. "He is an antagonistic figure when it comes to the state of Israel. It's a signal you're sending to Iran at the worst possible time and to our allies."

Mr Graham did not shy away from attacking Mr Hagel's past statements on foreign policy.

"Not only has he said you should directly negotiate with Iran, sanctions won't work, that Israel must negotiate with Hamas. He also was one of 12 senators who refused to sign a letter to the European Union trying to designate Hizbollah as a terrorist organisation."

Mr McConnell said Mr Hagel, who left the Senate in 2009, has "certainly been outspoken in foreign policy and defence over the years. The question we will be answering, if he's the nominee, is do his views make sense for that particular job?"

Mr McConnell said he would "wait and see how the hearings go and see whether Chuck's views square with the job he would be nominated to do".

"I'm going to take a look at all the things that Chuck has said over the years and review that, and in terms of his qualifications to lead our nation's military."

The second-ranking Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said that making Hagel defence secretary would be "the worst possible message we could send to our friend Israel and the rest of our allies in the Middle East". Mr Cornyn did not say he would try to block a Hagel nomination.

If confirmed, Mr Hagel would take over a Pentagon that faces budget cuts and a scaling back of the US-led war in Afghanistan.

The Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, is expected to meet Mr Obama in Washington this week to discuss the US presence in his country after the war formally concludes at the end of next year.

Mr Hagel is likely to support a more rapid withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Mr Obama last week called Mr Hagel "a patriot" who "has done extraordinary work" in the Senate and on an intelligence advisory board.

Mr Obama yesterday also nominated John Brennan as his next director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mr Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran, is currently the president's top counterterrorism adviser.

Mr Obama considered Mr Brennan for the top CIA job in 2008, but he withdrew his name amid questions about his connection to enhanced interrogation techniques while serving in the spy agency during the George W Bush administration. Mr Brennan must be confirmed by the Senate.