US President Barack Obama named Chuck Hagel on Monday to lead the Pentagon, setting up an ugly confirmation battle as Republican opponents said he was too hard on Israel and too soft on Iran.
Obama’s choice of John Brennan to replace scandal-tainted David Petraeus as CIA chief was seen as more straightforward despite the counterterrorism czar’s defence of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and the US drone war.
The second term revamp of the president’s national security team was expected to eventually win approval but several leading Republicans signaled they would make it tough for Hagel even though he is one of their own.
Obama paid particular tribute to retiring Pentagon chief Leon Panetta before giving ringing endorsements to the “outstanding” Hagel and Brennan and urging the Senate not to dally in confirming the important appointments.
“Chuck Hagel is the leader that our troops deserve. He is an American patriot,” the president said, heaping praise on a war hero whose wounds earned him two Purple Heart medals as a soldier in Vietnam.
“When Chuck was hit by shrapnel, his brother saved him. When his brother was injured by a mine, Chuck risked his life to pull him to safety. To this day, Chuck bears the scars – and the shrapnel – from the battles he fought in our name,” Obama said.
Hagel was also awarded the Army Commendation medal and the Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, the latter from the former South Vietnamese government, for his bravery while serving in the war.
Some Republicans have never forgiven him for his outspoken criticism of ex-president George W Bush’s handling of the Iraq war, and his closeness to the Democratic president has seen him branded as a traitor by others.
But Obama, who wants to be remembered as a leader who ended wars abroad to set about the tricky task of building at home following a crippling recession, described Hagel as someone perfectly fitted to that mould.
“Maybe most importantly, 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,” he said.
Administration appointments are often tense affairs in the United States as confirmation hearings provide senators with opportunities to turn away unwanted candidates or score cheap political points, or both.
Hagel, 66, known for a fiercely independent streak and a tendency to speak bluntly, is expected to get particularly rough treatment due to his criticism of America’s “Jewish lobby” and opposition to some Iran sanctions.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Hagel would be “the most antagonistic defence secretary towards the state of Israel in our nation’s history.”
Another Republican senator, John Cornyn of Texas, said he would oppose the nomination, charging it would be the “worst possible message we could send to our friend Israel and the rest of our allies in the Middle East.”
But in an interview with The Lincoln Journal Star, a newspaper in his home state of Nebraska, Hagel hit back at his critics.
There is “not one shred of evidence that I’m anti-Israeli, not one vote (of mine) that matters that hurt Israel,” he said.
If confirmed by the Senate, Hagel will have to manage major cuts to military spending while wrapping up the US war effort in Afghanistan and preparing for worst-case scenarios in Iran or Syria.
Serving as an enlisted man who never joined the officer ranks, Hagel carries a particular empathy for the unheralded infantry “grunts” in the field.
As he grapples with budget pressures, the former sergeant will likely try to shield frontline troops from the effect of spending cuts.
In his typical straight-shooting fashion, Hagel has called the Defence Department “bloated” and said that “the Pentagon needs to be pared down”.
Obama, smarting from watching Susan Rice – reportedly his first choice to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state – fold her bid in the face of Republican opposition, pressed hard for the Senate to approve Hagel.
“He would be the first person of enlisted rank to serve as secretary of defence. One of the few secretaries who had been wounded in war and the first Vietnam veteran to lead the department,” Obama said, calling his appointment “historic”.
Brennan, 57, may get an easier ride but is sure to face questions over his support for the use of certain “enhanced interrogation techniques” under the Bush administration and for his staunch defence of the US drone programme.
The 25-year Central Intelligence Agency veteran, an Arabic-speaking Middle East expert, replaces Petraeus, who resigned in November after confessing to an extramarital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell.
Obama highlighted what he called Brennan’s incredible work ethic, saying “John is legendary even in the White House” and reminding everyone of a now-famous quote from August 2010.
Asked if he got any down time or was all work and no play, Brennan replied: “I don’t do down time.”
In a moment of levity at the White House event, the avuncular 74-year-old Panetta drew loud laughs when he said he would be retiring to his walnut farm and “dealing with a different set of nuts”.