Two months after his bid to lead the Pentagon was nearly derailed by pro-Israel groups, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will seek to repair any lingering political damage with a visit to the Jewish state starting Sunday, the latest step in a charm campaign designed to solidify his standing on President Obama’s new national security team.
Concerns about Syria and Iran will top Hagel’s official agenda. He will also seek to finalize details of a complex $10 billion arms deal with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. On Sunday, Hagel will tour Yad Vashem, the memorial to victims of the Holocaust, before scheduled meetings with Israeli leaders.
But Hagel’s visit is also intended to bury allegations raised during his confirmation process by some pro-Israel groups that he was insufficiently supportive of the U.S. ally and had made comments that bordered on the anti-Semitic over the years.
Hagel and his backers vigorously rebutted the charges, dismissing them as part of a political smear campaign. After an awkward and acrimonious Senate hearing, he was confirmed in February by a 58 to 41 margin.
Since then, Hagel has worked to prevent the criticisms from resurfacing. The first foreign leader he greeted at the Pentagon was Ehud Barak, Israel’s defense minister at the time. And while Hagel’s inaugural overseas trip was to visit U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he made a point to schedule Israel as the first stop on his next foreign itinerary, before visiting Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Meanwhile at home, Hagel has courted skeptical lawmakers who opposed his nomination, lavishing them with personal attention and instructing his staff to respond swiftly to any policy concerns or queries from Capitol Hill.
In at least some notable cases, the strategy appears to be succeeding. In February, Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), the House Armed Services Committee chairman, publicly urged the White House to ditch Hagel and “go back to the drawing board.” Asked to rate Hagel’s performance today, however, McKeon is unreservedly effusive.
“I’d probably give him an ‘A,’ ” McKeon told a Washington Post reporter on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program. “I feel very good about him.”
McKeon praised Hagel for his handling of tensions with North Korea, but he indicated that the defense secretary had won him over with simple courtesies.
He said Hagel invited him to the defense secretary’s swearing-in ceremony, then rearranged his schedule at the last minute to meet with McKeon when both men were in Kabul last month. More recently, he has taken pen in hand to send McKeon handwritten thank-you notes.
“I’m thinking, where does he find the time to do this?” McKeon said. “I mean, we all know that’s a nice thing to do, but I never write notes. . . . I admire him for taking the time to do something like that.”
As a former two-term GOP senator from Nebraska, Hagel is well-versed in the ways of Capitol Hill. Indeed, the Republican resistance to his nomination surprised the White House, which believed the Senate would give a deferential hearing to a former colleague — and a Vietnam War hero.
Instead, Republican senators accused him of being hostile to Israel, cozy to Iran and wrong about the Iraq war. During his confirmation hearing, Hagel appeared unprepared and unsure how to respond to the criticism.
On Thursday, Hagel returned to the Senate Armed Services Committee to testify for the first time as defense secretary. He appeared more comfortable, fielding tough questions with ease.
Senators were also more respectful. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who skewered Hagel the last time around, tried to paper things over. “We worked together for a long period of time, had some difference of opinion, but always remained good friends,” he said.
Some Republicans are still suspicious that Obama picked a GOP war hero as defense secretary so he could provide political cover to slash the military’s budget.
“There’s a widespread view that you were brought into the Pentagon to cut defense,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) told Hagel at a recent House Armed Services Committee hearing. Hagel denied it, replying that Obama had never asked him to “cut the heart out of the Pentagon.”
In an interview, Thornberry said he was unpersuaded. “I guess I was hoping for a little stronger answer,” he said. “The concern is, with his very distinguished military background, that basically he would hide behind that and cut defense.”
Pro-Israel groups that tried to shoot down Hagel’s nomination have stayed largely quiet since he took over at the Pentagon.
William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard and board member of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a group that ran broadcast and newspaper ads slamming Hagel, noted that Obama and new Secretary of State John F. Kerry have also made recent visits to Israel.
“Suddenly, they’re hugging Israel very close,” Kristol said.
He passed up a chance to repeat his previous criticisms of Hagel, but didn’t back down either. “People like me opposed him because of his record,” Kristol said. “Now he’s defense secretary and I hope he reiterates what the president said in Israel, which was a pretty different tone from the first term, really.”
In Israel, the military establishment seems eager to move beyond Hagel’s bumpy confirmation and toward strengthening the already close security partnership with Washington.
In interviews, several senior and retired Israeli officers said they were impressed that Hagel had fought as an Army sergeant in Vietnam. Hagel was badly wounded in combat twice and still carries shrapnel in his chest.
“His background, as a veteran, as a brother in arms, is honored here. No one can understand defense better than the soldier who has served on the ground,” said Reuven Ben Shalom, a combat helicopter pilot and former head of the North American department of the Israel Defense Forces planning branch.
As for controversy over Hagel’s past statements, including a 2006 interview in which he said the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here” and complained “about some of the dumb things they do,” Ben Shalom brushed it off.
“We’re Israelis,” he said. “We’re used to a little criticism.”
William Booth in Jerusalem contributed to this report.