February 21, 2013

This post has been updated.

Right Turn has learned that a third of Senate Republicans, led by Minority Whip John Cornyn (Tex.), have called on President Obama to withdraw Chuck Hagel’s nomination as defense secretary, citing “serious doubts about his basic competence to meet the substantial demands of the office.”

Chuck Hagel
Chuck Hagel (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

In a letter to the president with 14 GOP co-signers, Cornyn writes:

While Senator Hagel’s erratic record and myriad conversions on key national security issues are troubling enough, his statements regarding Iran were disconcerting.  More than once during the hearing, he proclaimed the legitimacy of the current regime in Tehran, which has violently repressed its own citizens, rigged recent elections, provided material support for terrorism, and denied the Holocaust.

Regarding U.S. policy on Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, Senator Hagel displayed a seeming ambivalence about whether containment or prevention is the best approach, which gives us great concern.  Any sound strategy on Iran must be underpinned by the highly credible threat of U.S. military force, and there is broad bipartisan agreement on that point.  If Senator Hagel becomes Secretary of Defense, the military option will have near zero credibility.  This sends a dangerous message to the regime in Tehran, as it seeks to obtain the means necessary to harm both the United States and Israel.

Perhaps not coincidentally, we learn today that Iran is expanding its nuclear weapons operation.

The senators also focus on what a divisive figure Hagel has become and how little support he has:

It would be unprecedented for a Secretary of Defense to take office without the broad base of bipartisan support and confidence needed to serve effectively in this critical position.  Over the last half-century, no Secretary of Defense has been confirmed and taken office with more than three Senators voting against him.  Further, in the history of this position, none has ever been confirmed with more than 11 opposing votes.  The occupant of this critical office should be someone whose candidacy is neither controversial nor divisive.

In contrast, in 2011, you nominated Leon Panetta, who was confirmed by the Senate with unanimous support. His Pentagon tenure has been a huge success, due in part to the high degree of trust and confidence that Senators on both sides of the aisle have placed in him.

The idea that Hagel is no worse or better than other candidates is preposterous when one considers the records of former and current officials such as Michele Flournoy and Ash Carter. The senators argue, “The next Secretary of Defense should have a similar level of broad-based bipartisan support and confidence in order to succeed at a time when the Department of Defense faces monumental challenges, including Iran’s relentless drive to obtain nuclear weapons, a heightened threat of nuclear attack from North Korea, potentially deep budget cuts, a strategic pivot to the Asia-Pacific region, military operations in Afghanistan, the ongoing Global War on Terror, the continued slaughter of Syrian civilians at the hands of their own government, and other aftermath of the Arab Spring.”

Cornyn’s stature as not only a respected senior senator but also the Republican whip suggests that opposition to Hagel is not lifting. The names of those willing to sign onto the letter underscores that point: Jim Inhofe (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee; committee members Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), David Vitter (R-La.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah); Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Ron Johnson (R – Wis.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Mike Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), and Tim Scott (R-S.C.).  A source close to the drafting process tells me not to “read too much” into who didn’t sign the letter as many senators are on the road and could not get access to the letter.

Yesterday, Graham sent a letter to Hagel demanding to know if he made the reported comments that Israel was approaching “apartheid” and the Israeli prime minister was a “radical.” Moderate Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) also spoke out against Hagel yesterday.

It is noteworthy that the recent comments from GOP senators make clear that they find Hagel unfit and incompetent. In other words, they are laying the groundwork, along with complaints that Hagel has withheld information from the Senate, to continue to block a floor vote.

The Huffington Post reported that Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) said Hagel was “probably as good as we’re going to get from this White House” and would vote for him unless there are “unforeseen surprises.” His spokesman Jonathan Graffeo refused to answer whether Hagel’s recently reported remarks and discovery of more undisclosed speeches (noted above) were “surprises.”

Staff of two of Shelby’s Republican colleagues on the Armed Services Committee expressed surprise at his remarks; this raises the possibility that Shelby simply has been out of the loop since the recess began.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.