Chuck Hagel, John Kerry share similarities as expected Obama Cabinet nominees

John F. Kerry and Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s likely picks to head his second-term national security cabinet, have much in common, including decorated service in Vietnam and opposition to the Iraq war.

Perhaps more important, they also share the prospect of a quick and painless Senate confirmation if nominated. Avoiding a fight with Republicans would be a boon for Obama, who is wrangling with Congress over taxes and has been through a distracting war of words that scuttled U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice’s expected nomination as secretary of state.

Obama is expected to announce as soon as next week that Kerry, a longtime Democratic senator from Massachusetts, will be his choice to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. Kerry was regarded as Obama’s second choice until Rice withdrew her name from consideration Thursday amid Republican threats of a bruising Senate confirmation fight.

Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska who is regarded as a moderate, would succeed Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.

Clinton and Panetta have announced plans to leave office soon. Their successors, along with a replacement for disgraced CIA director David H. Petraeus, are expected to be named before Christmas.

Kerry and Hagel share Obama’s pragmatic approach to national security. Assuming they are nominated and confirmed, the two men will quickly face thorny decisions on the diplomatic and military fronts. Among the tough calls will be whether to intervene militarily in Syria and Iran, how to close down the Afghanistan war and how to engage a changing Middle East and a rising China.

No longer focused on salvaging Rice’s candidacy, White House officials Friday began warming to the idea of Kerry as chief diplomat. Officials who previously discounted Kerry’s candidacy hailed his international stature, the missions he has undertaken for Obama in the past four years and the ease with which he would probably be confirmed by his Senate colleagues.

“He’s extremely knowledgeable. He’s creative on foreign policy issues. He’s somebody who wants to solve problems and is prepared to take some risks to do so,” said a former senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because a nomination has not been announced.

During his losing 2004 presidential campaign, Kerry was accused of being an Iraq war defeatist who was too willing to talk to America’s adversaries. But Kerry has found a place in the foreign policy spotlight under Obama. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, a job he took over when Joe Biden became vice president, Kerry became an activist in the Senate and a trusted administration emissary.

Kerry traveled to Afghanistan in the fall of 2009 and persuaded President Hamid Karzai to accept a runoff election. The senator played a similar role for the administration in Pakistan, where he helped broker the release of a CIA contractor arrested on suspicion of murder and later persuaded the Pakistanis to return parts of a U.S. stealth helicopter that crashed during the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He was the first senior U.S. elected official to meet with Mohamed Morsi before and after he became Egypt’s president.

Still, Kerry is not personally close to Obama, and he has accumulated many critics after nearly 30 years in the Senate.

The “Swift Boat” veterans, who attacked Kerry’s record as a decorated naval officer in Vietnam during his presidential campaign, have voiced disapproval of his potential selection. He is also likely to face questions over his dealings with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before the civil war.

Kerry has kept a low profile in recent months. Arriving at Boston’s Logan Airport from Washington, Kerry told swarming reporters Friday that he had “no comments at all” on reports that he is now the favored secretary of state candidate.

“I’m just doing my job,” he said. “When the time is right, you’ll know what’s going on, and so will I.”

Hagel would give the administration a bipartisan boost, although the most-conservative Republicans consider him suspect. His moderate views on most foreign policy issues are roughly in line with Obama’s first-term agenda, and his Republican credentials may make planned cuts to the Pentagon budget more palatable.

Part of Hagel’s appeal to Obama is his history as an early Republican dissenter on the Iraq war, the issue that Obama rode to prominence as a freshman senator. Hagel called the Iraq troop surge “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”

Hagel’s chief drawback is likely to be opposition from prominent U.S. supporters of Israel, who question his commitment to Israel’s security.

At a White House Hanukkah party Thursday night, after Hagel’s name had surfaced as the likely defense nominee, several prominent Democratic Jewish activists complained that he voted against Israel’s interests while in the Senate.

Hagel voted against Iran sanctions in 2004, 2007 and 2008, and he declined to join those calling for the European Union to designate Hezbollah a terrorist group. After leaving office, Hagel urged Obama to open talks with Hamas, which opposes Israel’s existence.

“I think it’s fair to assume that a record like that would raise some eyebrows, and more,” said Josh Block, president of the Israel Project.

White House press secretary Jay Carney declined to comment on criticism of Hagel’s record on Israel. “The president thinks very highly of Senator Hagel,” Carney said Thursday.

Hagel served two terms in the Senate, ending in 2008. He crossed party lines to endorse Obama in 2008 and co-chairs Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board. He teaches at Georgetown University and is chairman of an establishment think tank, the Atlantic Council, where he gave a speech last week praising U.S. engagement overseas.

“Engagement is not surrender; it’s not appeasement,” Hagel said in a slap at Republican hawks suspicious of foreign entanglements or the ceding of U.S. preeminence.

Christopher Preble, a vice president of the conservative Cato Institute, wrote approvingly about the former senator this week, saying, “I expect that Hagel will generally advise against sending U.S. troops on quixotic nation-building missions.”

A Hagel nomination would follow a recent pattern in which Democratic presidents name Republicans to lead the Pentagon. Obama asked Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to stay on in 2009, and President Bill Clinton picked former senator William S. Cohen (R-Maine).

Anne Gearan is The Washington Post's diplomatic correspondent.
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