6:05am

Mon January 7, 2013
Politics

Hagel Expected To Be Picked As Defense Chief

Originally published on Sun January 13, 2013 9:00 am

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On a Monday, it's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama wants a Republican to be his next secretary of Defense, and some Republicans really don't like the choice.

INSKEEP: Senator Chuck Hagel is a Vietnam veteran. He's a former Nebraska senator, but some of his former colleagues in Congress insist they want answers to a variety of objections that have been raised in recent days.

NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is on the line. Tom, good morning.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And Happy New Year. What attracts the president to Hagel even knowing that these objections are coming?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, he's a Republican and there is a bipartisan element here. And more importantly, he's in line with the president's thinking. Like the president, he's wary of America being entangled in long wars. He'd prefer to leave Afghanistan faster. And also, you know, Hagel was against the surge of troops in Iraq back in 2007, much like then-Senator Barack Obama. And also Hagel's call for more defense cuts - so that echoes with what the president has said, as well.

INSKEEP: OK, so a lot of issues on which the president and Hagel agree. And yet, this is a guy with a fairly conservative voting record when he was in the Senate. How tough will the fight be for him?

BOWMAN: Well, there is opposition to him, particularly when Republicans like Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham. They said they would oppose him, that he's not tough enough on Iran and that he prefers sanctions to talk of military action. And they also note that he opposed sanctions on Iran in some of his votes, but Hagel has supported sanctions in other votes when he was a member of the Senate.

Also, he seen by some as anti-Israel. He made some comments about the pro-Israeli lobby and its influence in Washington, and that mere remark has rankled some people. But, you know, now the White House and Hagel supporters are pushing back hard. They point to his writings and speeches and votes, which they say show strong support for Israel. They point to a book he wrote where he talks about the special historic bond with Israel; a speech last year where Hagel said the U.S. must keep ratcheting up sanctions on Iran to keep the pressure on.

And then, finally they single out people like Daniel Kurtzer, the U.S. ambassador to Israel under President George W. Bush, who calls Hagel a friend of Israel, but also one who is willing to have frank discussions about certain Israeli policies.

INSKEEP: It's interesting. It's almost like we have a confirmation fight already here when you say all these things, Tom Bowman, and he's just now about to be nominated. I wonder if part of the political thinking on the part of the White House here also, as you said, he's a Republican, there's a bipartisan element to this. It's also a challenge to Republicans, isn't it? It's almost daring them to shoot down one of their own.

BOWMAN: You know, I think it is. Obviously, he's had fights with the Republicans over the budgets and the fiscal cliff and so forth. And there's a lot of criticism of Susan Rice, who he thought about for Secretary of State. So this is a way to kind of hit the Republicans hard on this; dare them to knock down one of their own. Even though, again, some Republicans don't see Chuck Hagel as much of a Republican because he's been willing to buck the party in past years.

INSKEEP: Is there something about his record, particularly his military record, which would be unusual for a secretary of Defense?

BOWMAN: There is. He would be the first secretary of Defense that has served as a grunt in ground combat. You know, going back 65 years when we, you know, started the Defense Department, when most of his predecessors, you know, worked as staff officers in rear echelon assignments. And that really, I think, has a profound effect on him. Again, that's why he's weary - maybe much more wary than other politicians - in sending American troops into harm's way.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman this morning, with news that Chuck Hagel is expected to be nominated as President Obama Secretary of Defense. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.