How concerned is the White House over Chuck Hagel’s confirmation chances? Enough to have him produce a written apology for the most inflammatory of his comments well ahead of his first hearing. In a letter to Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Hagel expressed regret for referring to a “Jewish lobby,” claiming he only did so once:
Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), President Obama’s pick for Defense secretary, expressed regret for a past comment about the “Jewish lobby” which has threatened to derail his nomination.
In a letter to Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), released Monday, Hagel called the remark a “poor choice of words,” and vowed that he would work to “expand the depth and breadth of U.S.-Israel cooperation” if confirmed for the Pentagon’s top post.
“I regret saying it,” Hagel wrote. “I used that terminology only once, in an interview. I recognize that this kind of language can be construed as anti-lsrael. I know the pro-Israel lobby is comprised of both Jewish and non-Jewish Americans.” …
“In the Senate, I was a strong supporter of Defense appropriations, which provided enduring support for Israel’s security. Most Americans, myself included, are overwhelmingly supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel strategic and security relationship. This broad support comes-from both Jews and non-Jews alike,” said Hagel.
Claiming this as a one-off could end up backfiring on Hagel. It certainly might have been a one-time stumble, but Hagel and the White House had better hope it’s true, or that any other repetitions happened outside of the range of a live microphone. Otherwise, they’re looking at a Mark Fuhrman scenario, and a public-relations disaster if more of these kinds of comments come to light.
The letter is curious, too, for its intended recipient. Why send it to Barbara Boxer? She’s hardly the point person for Democrats on Hagel; that’s Chuck Schumer, whose decision will make or break Hagel’s nomination. Carl Levin would have been the most appropriate correspondent, as chair of the Armed Services Committee, or Richard Blumenthal, who sits on the committee and sounded as though he was looking for a reason to support Hagel on Sunday. Boxer, who chairs Environment and Public Works and sits on Foreign Relations, won’t get a vote on Hagel in committee, and no one would seriously have thought she would oppose an Obama nominee in the first place.
On Iran, Hagel insists that he’s a get-along-to-go-along kind of guy:
“I agree that with Iran’s continued rejection of diplomatic overtures, further effective sanctions – both multilateral and unilateral – may be necessary and I will support the President,” said Hagel.
“I have always been supportive of a strong U.S.-Israel strategic relationship and always supported Israel’s right to defend itself against attack,” he added.
This is the more important issue, and Hagel’s record speaks for itself. He staunchly opposed efforts to impose these sanctions on Iran in the first place, opposed efforts to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization based on its support (financial and otherwise) of terrorist networks, and claimed in Pakistan in 2008 that the military options for the US and Israel to stop Iran from nuclear-weapons capability were irrational and unrealistic. That puts Hagel on the fringe of both parties, and sends a curious message of indifference to Iran at a critical time in their pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The letter might help Hagel gain more enthusiasm among Democrats already looking to support him, but it’s not clear at all that it will dent the skepticism among those who aren’t.
Update: Apparently, the letter was good enough for Schumer:
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced his support Tuesday for the nomination of former senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, delivering a key vote for the Nebraska Republican’s confirmation after weeks of voicing doubt about his positions on security issues related to Israel and Iran.
Schumer, the No. 3 Democrat and most senior Jewish senator, made the decision following a 90-minute meeting Monday in the West Wing, a secretive huddle that Schumer and White House officials kept under wraps until the decision to announce his support today.
“Senator Hagel could not have been more forthcoming and sincere,” Schumer said Tuesday in a statement. “Based on several key assurances provided by Senator Hagel, I am currently prepared to vote for his confirmation. I encourage my Senate colleagues who have shared my previous concerns to also support him.”
That should settle the matter … assuming there are no other surprises.