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.