The sound of swords being sharpened is resounding throughout the Capitol as U.S. President Barack Obama appoints former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense in place of Leon Panetta. Senators are anticipating a great confirmation battle.
The signs of an impending storm are already visible. Hagel's highly critical stance toward Israel stands out as one of the central arguments of those senators from both parties who oppose the appointment. Another key argument revolves around Hagel's opposition to military action against Iran's nuclear facilities, and his preference that the U.S. negotiate with Iran rather than bomb it.
Only last week, President Obama publicly voiced his admiration of Hagel, a twice-decorated soldier in the Vietnam War. The two men see eye-to-eye on the need to make extensive cuts to the defense budget, and Obama expects Hagel can pull off such cuts in a time of economic crisis. In everything concerning U.S. involvement overseas, Hagel can be described as an isolationist and dove.
Pro-Israel lobbyists in Washington are already preparing for the big showdown over Hagel's appointment. They have no qualms about urging senators to vote against Hagel at the end of the critical, likely fascinating confirmation hearing. Some Israel advocates will even judge a senator's pro-Israel bona fides on the basis of how they vote on this appointment. The moment of truth is approaching, and mere words of support for Israel will not cut it.
It is no surprise that one of the most enthusiastic supporters of Hagel's candidacy is Pat Buchanan — a conservative media personality and politician who has run for president in the past. Over the years, including in an interview I conducted with him, Buchanan has opposed all American economic aid to Israel, no matter the political stripe of the government in Jerusalem. Buchanan also supports dialogue between the United States and Hamas or Hezbollah.
On the other side of the divide stands Abe Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, who has openly opposed Hagel's appointment. At the same time, many important American media commentators enthusiastically favor the Hagel nomination, including Thomas Friedman of The New York Times.
Obama had to pass over his first choice for secretary of state, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. Strong opposition in Congress nixed the nomination, despite Rice being very close to the president.
Was Rice's rejection a preview of what we can expect to see with Hagel's nomination? Unlikely. At the beginning of his second term, Obama will not accept another defeat and will do everything in his power to make sure Hagel is appointed.