WASHINGTON - A senior American official told National Journal magazine on Sunday that it was "fair" to say that President Barack Obama is considering candidates other than Chuck Hagel for defense secretary, in particular Michele Flournoy, who was under secretary of defense for policy in Obama's first term, and Ashton Carter, the current deputy defense secretary.
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A week ago it was reported that the former Republican senator was Obama's top choice, but the National Journal said he "appears to be following the path of Susan Rice as a trial-balloon nominee who finds himself quickly losing altitude in Washington. And as happened with Rice, the White House is now signaling that it may soon puncture Hagel's hopes.
"Just as occurred with Rice, the UN ambassador whose prospective nomination as secretary of state—leaked to the media—flamed out in the face of widespread criticism of her, President Obama appears to be rethinking his choice for defense secretary," according to the report.
The news magazine said the White House was reassessing Hagel's position following a "particularly discouraging" series of comments on the Sunday-morning talk shows. Outgoing Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, an independent, told CNN's "State of the Union" that it would be "a very tough confirmation process," while on NBC's "Meet the Press" former fellow Republican in the Senate, Lindsey Graham, said Hagel's would be "a challenging nomination." Graham added: "I don’t think he’s going to get many Republican votes."
'Political cost.' Obama and Hagel (Archive photo: Reuters)
The National Journal said that while much of the criticism centers on questions of whether Hagel has been a "strong enough supporter of Israel and tough enough on Iran - as well as past comments he made about gay people - he is also paying, in part, for his bluntness and bravery in advocating unpopular positions during his 12 years in the Senate.
"Hagel's gutsy and prescient stand against his own party and President George W. Bush in the run-up to the Iraq invasion - and his criticism of the war’s management afterwards - all but cost him his political career, turning him from a possible GOP presidential contender into a pariah within his party," according to the magazine.
According to the report, Obama may be calculating that the "political cost of pushing through a Hagel nomination at a time of critical talks over fiscal issues may be too high."
Opponents point to Hagel's votes against sanctions on Iran and letters that he signed, along with ones he declined to add his name to, many of those favored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby. In August 2006, Hagel refused to sign a letter pressing the European Union to declare Hezbollah a terrorist organization, one of 12 senators who balked. In 2007, he sent a letter to Bush urging talks with Iran.
Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, has favored diplomacy over military action with Iran, and criticized talk of a strike by either the United States or Israel against Iran.
Lieberman said sanctions are the only way to change Tehran's behavior "short of war." Lieberman said that Hagel had "some very outlying votes" against economic penalties on Iran over its nuclear program.
Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson said on ABC's "This Week" that he'll "reserve any judgment until after the hearings we have on confirmation if in fact he is nominated." Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., was non-committal about Hagel, saying she'll see "what happens with these hearings."
Hagel once made reference to the "Jewish lobby" in the United States, a comment that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., called "inappropriate."
"There's no such thing as a Jewish lobby," McCain said. "There's an Armenian lobby, there's not a Jewish lobby. There's an Israeli lobby. It's called AIPAC, very influential."
AP contributed to the report