Obama likely to tap ex-Republican senator Chuck Hagel as defence secretary
President could nominate former Republican senator as early as this week, officials said
US President Barack Obama was expected to nominate Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator and Vietnam veteran, to be defence secretary, officials said, setting up a confirmation battle with lawmakers and interest groups critical of his views on Israel and Iran.
White House officials said that the president had not formally offered the job to Hagel, but others familiar with the process said that the announcement could come as soon as tomorrow.
Hagel, who was elected to the Senate from Nebraska in 1996 and retired in 2008, was awarded two Purple Hearts for wounds he received as a soldier in Vietnam. His experience serving in that war made him wary about using force unless other options have been tried, he said in a recent interview with the history magazine Vietnam.
"I'm not a pacifist. I believe in using force but only after a very careful decision-making process. I will do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war," he said.
By nominating a Republican to run the Defence Department, Obama would give his second-term national security team a bipartisan tinge as the White House rapidly winds down the war in Afghanistan and plans for even deeper cuts to the defence budget. Hagel's criticism of the Iraq war has made him deeply unpopular with many conservative Republicans, however.
The choice also sets up a possibly contentious confirmation fight with Israel's defenders in Washington, some of whom mounted a public campaign to head off his nomination. They criticised Hagel for past comments calling on Israel to negotiate with Palestinian groups and for opposing some sanctions aimed at Iran.
Hagel, who would replace Leon Panetta as defence secretary, has also been criticised by some liberal Democrats and gay rights organisations for a comment he made during Bill Clinton's presidency, calling an ambassadorial nominee "openly, aggressively gay", a comment Hagel recently apologised for.
Diving into a fight over nominating Hagel would appear to mark a sharp departure for Obama, who has generally avoided battles over selections for major posts. But a decision to pick another candidate would also have been damaging to Obama, because it would have been his second surrender on a top cabinet choice within a month.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew her name from consideration as a possible secretary of state nominee last month after drawing heavy criticism from Republicans over her statements after the September attacks on a US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Though senators from both parties have voiced reservations about Hagel, few have announced they would vote against him, a caution the White House may be counting on to get him confirmed.
Hagel's record on Israel and Iran are likely to be the main focus of the nomination battle. William Kristol, the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, published a "special editorial" on Friday accusing him of having "dangerous views on Iran" and an "unpleasant distaste for Israel and Jews."