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Obama defends Hagel's bid

US president, Barack Obama, is expected to nominate former Republican senator, Chuck Hagel, to serve as his defence secretary.

PT0M59S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2cbzv 620 349

BY THE time the President formally introduced Chuck Hagel as his pick for defence secretary on Monday in Washington, the former Republican senator's enemies on the right had been busy for weeks traducing him as an anti-Semite and an appeaser.

The public campaign against his appointment has already turned mean and the White House is prepared for combative Senate confirmation hearings. Naturally there is a jarring dissonance between the story of Chuck Hagel we are hearing from the conservatives trying to sink his nomination and the version told by the President.

Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.  

At first blush, Hagel has a perfect Republican pedigree. As a young man he volunteered to serve in the Vietnam War, where he led a rifle squad and was twice wounded.

Chuck Hagel (L) and US President Barack Obama (C) listen to John Brennan speak during an event in the East Room of the White House January 7, 2013 in Washington, DC. Obama announced his nominations of White House counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to be the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and former Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense.

Ready for a bloody confirmation fight … Barack Obama announced his nominations of defence secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, left, and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan, right. Photo: AFP

In Monday's press conference, Obama deliberately emphasised this part of his nominee's story, telling reporters Hagel would be the first former enlisted man - and the first Vietnam veteran - to serve as secretary for defence.

''Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction. He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that's something we only do when it's absolutely necessary,'' Obama said.

After the war, Hagel worked for a time on the election campaign for Ronald Reagan, and for Veterans Affairs, before making millions in the private sector. He returned to Washington to serve two terms as a senator from 1997. He serves on the President's intelligence advisory board and as a member of the Secretary of Defence's policy board.

It was as a Republican on Capitol Hill that Hagel first offended the neo-conservatives leading the charge against him. Though he originally supported the invasion of Iraq he soon changed his views and in 2006 and 2007 he spoke out against the war in general, the surge in particular, and more broadly against George W. Bush's foreign policy.

More contentiously though, Hagel challenged the dominant Republican view on America's relationship with Israel, declaring in a 2008 interview: ''Let me clear something up here if there's any doubt in your mind. I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli senator. I'm a United States senator. I support Israel. But my first interest is, I take an oath of office to the constitution of the United States. Not to a president, not to a party, not to Israel.''

The statement was an affront to many, especially in the Republican Party, where unwavering support for Israel is the norm, but it was other comments in the same interview that have been used to justify the argument that he is anti-Semitic.

''The political reality is that … the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,'' Hagel said. His use of the term ''Jewish lobby'' rather than ''Israel lobby'' has not been forgiven in some quarters. On Monday, in an interview with a home-town paper, Nebraska's Journal Star, Hagel denied any suggestion he was anti-Israel, let alone anti-Semitic, and said he had been unable to defend his record over recent weeks while the President was considering his appointment.

During his silence over the past weeks, The Weekly Standard, the neo-conservative journal edited by William Kristol, ramped up its campaign against him. In one story, it quoted an anonymous Republican aide as saying: ''Send us Hagel and we will make sure every American knows he is an anti-Semite.''

Since then, The Weekly Standard has listed every instance in which Hagel's public comments have strayed from hardline support of Israel.

The Emergency Committee for Israel - on whose board Kristol serves - has launched a website, chuckhagel.com, to further the campaign. The website uses material gathered by The Weekly Standard, and also accuses Hagel of being soft on Iran.

And there is the rub. Despite America's exhausting engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, the neo-conservative establishment remains trenchantly hawkish. They might not like Hagel but what really appals them is the thought of Obama securing an ally at the top of the defence administration who will assist him in cutting military spending and who may be less enthusiastic than they are about the use of military force against Iran.

The war veteran and former Republican senator will be a hard man to cast as a simpering liberal in an ensuing public debate.

So far, the good money in Washington is that the confirmation fight will be bloody but the President will get his way.