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Obama to nominate Hagel as defense chief

Republicans voice concerns on defense pick

Chuck Hagel

CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES

“I don’t know what his management experience is regarding the Pentagon — little if any — so I think it’s an extremely controversial choice,” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said, referring to his former colleague, Chuck Hagel.

NEW YORK — President Obama has selected Chuck Hagel, a former senator from Nebraska, to be his next defense secretary, turning to a prominent Republican to lead the Pentagon as it faces the challenge of winding down the war in Afghanistan and possible reductions in military spending.

But the nomination, which a White House official said would be announced Monday, has already encountered stiff opposition from Republicans and Democrats because of Hagel’s views on Israel and Iran and his comments about an ambassador who was gay.

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Republicans, in particular, have raised objections to statements by Hagel that they have described as dismissive of Israel and soft on Iran. Hagel once described pro-Israel lobbying groups as the ‘‘Jewish lobby.’’ He has insisted that he is a strong supporter of Israel.

Speaking on Sunday talk shows, several Republican senators indicated that a stormy confirmation process was all but inevitable.

‘‘His views with regard to Israel, for example, and Iran and all the other positions that he’s taken over the years will be very much a matter of discussion in the confirmation process,’’ Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader in the Senate, said on NBC’s ‘‘Meet the Press.’’

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McConnell said he had not decided whether he would support Hagel. ‘‘I think there will be a lot of tough questions for Senator Hagel, but he will be treated fairly by Republicans in the Senate,’’ McConnell said.

Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said Sunday that he personally liked Hagel but that he was ‘‘out of the mainstream of thinking on most issues regarding foreign policy.’’

‘I don’t know what his management experience is regarding the Pentagon — little if any — so I think it’s an extremely controversial choice.’

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‘‘This is an in-your-face nomination of the president to all of us who are supportive of Israel,’’ Graham said on CNN. ‘‘I don’t know what his management experience is regarding the Pentagon — little if any — so I think it’s an extremely controversial choice.’’

Those sentiments were echoed by Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, who said Obama was being overly dismissive of criticism about Hagel.

‘‘I think this is a president right now who has drunk the tea,’’ Cruz said on ‘‘Fox News Sunday.’’ “He is feeling very good about himself; he is feeling like there can be no opposition to his position. And so, it doesn’t seem — he doesn’t seem terribly concerned that there’s not a lot of support for Chuck Hagel in the Senate.’’

Cruz said he would probably vote against Hagel’s confirmation.

Hagel, 66, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, has also received criticism for opposing several bills to impose unilateral sanctions on Iran.

His supporters point out that he has backed several rounds of sanctions aimed at preventing Iranian weapons proliferation. He also supported the Iran Freedom Support Act in 2006, which, in addition to imposing sanctions, provided funding for human rights and prodemocracy groups in the country.

If confirmed by the Senate, Hagel would succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Panetta has made it clear he intends to leave early this year but has not publicly discussed the timing of his departure. He took the Pentagon job in July 2011.

Other candidates thought to be considered for the position included Michele Flournoy, an Obama confidante and former undersecretary of defense for policy, and Ashton Carter, a Harvard University professor who is on leave and running the Pentagon as Panetta’s deputy.

Coming confirmation battles for Hagel and other Cabinet appointees could open another schism between the White House and Congress. Fierce Republican resistance has already derailed the candidacy of one potential nominee.

Susan E. Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state after lawmakers threatened to disrupt her nomination over statements made about the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Obama instead nominated Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Speaking on ABC’s ‘‘This Week,’’ Senator Heidi Heitkamp, the newly elected Democratic senator from North Dakota, criticized the rancor surrounding Hagel’s nomination, calling it symptomatic of Washington gridlock.

‘‘This kind of fight is the fight that the people of this country get so frustrated about and with,’’ Heitkamp said. ‘‘Let Chuck Hagel get nominated, if he’s going to be nominated, and let’s hear what the senator has to say.’’

Hagel’s candidacy has also raised questions among some liberal groups because of a statement he made 14 years ago about President Bill Clinton’s nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg, James C. Hormel. Hormel, he said, was not qualified because he was ‘‘openly, aggressively gay.’’ Hagel has since apologized.

The president has praised Hagel as a ‘‘patriot,’’ saying nothing in his record would prevent him from serving as defense secretary.

Hagel spent 12 years in the Senate, retiring in 2009 after serving on the Foreign Relations Committee. As senator, he called for trimming the defense budgets and often expressed skepticism about involving US troops in extended missions abroad, particularly without international support.

Though he voted for the resolution allowing President George W. Bush to take military action in Iraq, he was among the most outspoken Republican critics of the war. In 2004, he declared that he had ‘‘no confidence’’ in Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s leadership, and he later joined Democrats in opposing Bush’s plan to send more troops to Iraq.

Hagel’s service in Vietnam has helped shape his views on Afghanistan. He has declared that militaries are ‘‘built to fight and win wars, not bind together failing nations.’’ In a recent interview, he spoke of the need for greater diplomacy as the appropriate path in Afghanistan, noting that ‘‘the American people want out’’ of the war.

Whatever the criticism of Hagel’s views on Israel, perhaps his most pressing concern if confirmed as defense secretary will be the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

This week, Obama is expected to meet with President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan to discuss the withdrawal set to begin in 2014.

Hagel has indicated that he would be comfortable with quickly drawing down the remaining 66,000 troops as Pentagon officials say the White House desires.

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