Where Does Chuck Hagel Stand on Defense, Israel and LGBT Issues?

Where Does Chuck Hagel Stand on Defense, Israel and LGBT Issues?
Where Does Chuck Hagel Stand on Defense, Israel and LGBT Issues?

President Obama’s pick to lead the Defense Department, Chuck Hagel, went under the gun on Thursday as he went before the Senate Armed Services Committee, facing Republican critics who demanded clarifications on the Vietnam War veteran’s past.

Obama nominated Hagel earlier this month to replace Leon Panetta, the outgoing defense secretary.

To examine Hagel’s credentials on the subjects of U.S. military preparedness, his position on the Middle East and LGBT issues, host Carmen Russell-Sluchansky spoke to a number of experts.

In part one, Robert Nolan, editor at the Foreign Policy Association and producer of the Great Decisions in Foreign Policy television series on PBS, discussed Hagel’s position on military preparedness.

[jwplayer config=”1″ mediaid=”984″]


Robert Nolan: It’s been very interesting, but for the past few months it’s always been Chuck Hagel in the foreign policy world. Interestingly enough, I happened to interview former Senator back at NATO summit last May in Chicago. We touched a number of national security issues, which were also on the hearing today. I don’t see that his position has changed. He’s a very consistent. All the interviews obviously took place before he was nominated as potentially the next Sec. of Defense. So that was interesting to see. Today we all expected to see a very heated debate, and I think a lot of folks were happy to see that. It was interesting back and forth. And certainly Mr. Hagel played cool. His method seemed to be not to engage in some controversial issues. That was intentional, he wouldn’t give up “yes” or “no” question to Sen. McCain. It was an interesting day, certainly!

Carmen Russell-Sluchansky: I’m going to play a clip of what he said. He seemed to be preparing actually for exactly some of the criticisms, some of the questions he was going to get and here he was – he never wavered:

Chuck Hagel I believe and I always have believed that America must engage in the world, not retreat from the world, but engage from — the world. My record is consistent on these points.

Carmen Russell-Sluchansky: That was obviously a little preemptive of criticism. First of all, that he is well-dovish when it comes to the Middle East, when it comes to Iran. But he’s also out there to make cuts in the Department of Defense and further Obama’s foreign policy, which is retracting more from around the world.

Robert Nolan: Sure! First and foremost, the role of Sec. of Defense is to report to the President and implement his policy. So we know what those are. The Obama administration has made it clear – it’s Iraq, it’s Afghanistan. I think the American public is fully in tune with that goal. I don’t think you’re going to see public support to any military endeavors in Syria, as much as Sen. McCain might like to see something like that. I think, in terms of implementing Obama’s policy, the guy is right for the job. Obviously, as we saw throughout the hearings this morning, his experience in Vietnam really shaped Hagel’s worldview. I don’t think he wouldn’t feel comfortable sending our troops anywhere without a clear objective. And certainly he’s been very critical both of Iraq operation and Afghanistan operation – mostly for its scope and its length. So I think he’s the right person for the job at this particular moment. I don’t think I can call him “dovish”, but he’s very cautious when it comes to use of implementing hard power. And again, he talked a lot about engagement. It’s fair to criticize some of his past statements about engaging with Hamas and engaging with Iranian regime. That obviously came up too. But as far as implementing Obama’s policy, he’s the right guy. And it looks like as controversial as this nomination has been, he’ll pass.

Carmen Russell-Sluchanshy: You’ve brought up a couple of things, I want you to dwell on them. One is you did mention his service, a lot of people have applied to the fact that this would be the first time the Defense Secretary has actually served in the combat role. But at the same time he’s getting criticisms, because he never actually had an executive position and this is a position where quick decisions actually mean the life or death of American servicemen. Are these skills missing from him?

Robert Nolan: It’s early to say. Certainly, given that perspective, I wouldn’t have been impressed by his performance today, because he didn’t have responses to some kind of things. He’s been sort of dodgy on some questions. Let’s go back to one of the things he actually mentioned – the defense cuts. I mean, keep in mind, this isn’t something that Obama unilaterally decided or Chuck Hagel thought this is a particularly great idea. I mean that was an agreement that was reached by our elected officials. It’s not a republican policy or democratic policy. But it is one that will be implemented, under Hagel. He did a good job in sort of framing future threats the country currently faces. We’re dealing obviously with counter-terrorism, with what’s happening in North Africa, the Middle East.


In part two, Asaf Romirowsky, adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense for Democracies and the Middle East Forum, discussed Hagel’s stance on the U.S. relationship with Israel and the Middle East.

[jwplayer config=”1″ mediaid=”985″]


He was asked about that today. He responded that it was just a “bad use of words”:

I should have used another term and I’m sorry. And I regret this. I mean the use of “intimidation”. I should have used “influence”. I think it would have been more appropriate.

To talk about that I have on the line Asaf Romirowsky, adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defense for Democracies and the Middle East Forum, and he’s also a former Israeli Defense Forces International Relations Liaison Officer.Obviously, I have to imagine – when he was nominated to this position, we know a lot of this came out. There even have been ads taken out against Chuck Hagel, saying that he’s not friend of Israel, that he’s soft on Iran. The things that he said, the few comments that we’ve pulled apart from interviews he’s done in the past, is that sufficient to make charges against him?

I think a lot of them do raise concerns. I think that it’s more important to look at his track record over the years, predominantly on the issue of Iran and Iran sanctions, the issue of Hezbollah and also connection between Hezbollah and Hamas which are known active terrorist organizations, which pose great threats to the state of Israel. All that raises a great deal of concern, there’s no doubt that in today’s hearings there was a clear attempt to stand behind the President and to voice the right comments. The continuation of the clip you aired before retract the issue of the use of pro-Jewish lobby, pro-Israel lobby and we’re going from “intimidation” to influence – these are semantics. One needs to actually look at the larger issue. And for this administration going forward in the next term №1 issue is going to be Iran. And I think that what he did say today that the window of opportunities of negotiations with Iran is closing and that there’s a military option still on the table. The track record hasn’t proven that. And that’s where a lot of the constraint has been raised by people from the outside looking to see what’s going to happen. As you probably know, there’s been a main source of tension over the past four years between Washington and Jerusalem. The threat of Iran, what it means to the region at large and then we look at the bigger issue of what’s going to happen next four years – and there’s no doubt that appointing individual like Chuck Hagel would attract Iran that hasn’t been strong enough. That’s where the concern is being voiced.

He actually seemed prepared for those criticisms in his opening statements on Capitol Hill in the U.S. Senate. He made the case that he’s not soft on Iran:

As I’ve made clear, I’m fully committed to the President’s goal of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. I’ve been on record on that issue. And as I’ve said in the past many times, all options must be on the table to achieve that goal.

All options are on the table and we will not let Iran acquire a nuclear weapon. Do you simply not believe him or is the case that it’s not the only issue?

It’s not. But again, this is while he’s looking to say that there’s some kind of diplomacy with Iran and there’s room for that, when you talk about Revolutionary Guards in Hezbollah which is direct affiliates and proxies of Iran – there he took a different stance. So I think that he makes distinctions which should not be made vis-à-vis how Iran acts and operates in the region through these affiliates. You have to mention the fact that Iran has been openly supporting Hamas, openly supporting Hezbollah, which is armed by the Iranian regime. These are all major problems as you look at the threat that Iran poses to the region at large, not to mention the larger Sunni-Shia cleavage that is going to be altered if Iran operates this way and not to mention the financial problems we’re going to see in the region and the military instability. I mean these are all bigger issues. And here he’s coming today, as I said before, and supporting the stance of the administration, quoting the President’s last speech when he was at APEC conference and said, “Containment is not an option, when it comes to Iran”. Those are the right things to say. However, the concern over the bigger picture is his record over the years. And so, to say that because he’s going to be appointed as Sec. of Defense, now he’s changed his mind – that’s where the skepticism has really been voiced. Is it really sincere? Or does it have other issues?

Is engagement in negotiations and that kind of things – should the administration not even be considering that? Should the Sec. of Defense not also be one of the options on the table?

Well, I think over the past four years we’ve been engaged in what’s considered to be terror-free divestment as to Iran sanctions. Iran sanctions have had a great influence on the economy in Iran – that’s worked out pretty well. It’s not to say that it’s not been working, but it’s not enough. What the next steps are going to be? That’s part of the larger issue.


[jwplayer config=”1″ mediaid=”986″]


Let me get your general take on Chuck Hagel.

He’s certainly qualified for the position. He has a very good track record as a U.S. Senator, he did take some strong positions at times many would have deemed “unpopular”, but he’s shown and proved his character over the years through his service.

He has encouraged, or someone would even say – pushed Israel to recognize a Palestinian state, to start working towards that Palestinian state resolution. How has that been, in regards to how effective he’s been and how he’s going to handle it?

I don’t know how effective he’s been in the past. But I think in his current position he’s going to need to be effective. There has to be effectiveness in whole administration in moving the process forward. That doesn’t fall on Chuck Hagel or Sec. of Defense alone, it’s going to be commitment by the whole administration, by all the parties involved to move the process forward.

Are you concerned that criticism coming from pro-Israel lobby and other outfits that are in one way or another pro-Israel may actually cause too many divisions, in regards to negotiations and moving forward in the process?

There’s always concern, given how fragile the process is, it could break down any moment, so it is a cause of concern.

When you hear somebody like Chuck Hagel, calling the Jewish lobby “intimidating”, do you agree with the statement? Is this the part of the problem of American foreign policy? Or do you think maybe he stepped the line out there?

In American policy lobby groups are intimidating. Many will say that NRA is intimidating. So I think beyond just foreign policy, there needs to be a serious look at the way our policies are drafted and put together, so it’s certainly a concern which is shared by Sen. Hagel and many individuals, working on many different issues across the country.

As I mentioned, there was a report that came out. Someone actually dug up an old copy of the Lincoln Journal Star where he said that Israel keeps Palestinians “caged up like animals”. Obviously that’s a very contentious situation over there in the Middle East, blaming others of various forms of violence, but at the same time many would obviously say that Palestinian movement is restricted as a result. Israelis tend to say that that’s because there’s harboring of certain violent elements. What do you think about that characterization?

I think that’s characterization which really needs to be looked at and listened to. That’s an accurate characterization. Many would say that they’re “caged up”. You have an open air prison, lack of food, lack of medical supply, lack of necessary access and necessary exit points. And I don’t think we need to shy away from this statement. That’s happening! It’s certainly there. Anybody who had been there could tell you that there’re caged in.


In part four, Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, goes into LGBT issues and the environment.

[jwplayer config=”1″ mediaid=”987″]


How much can we hold someone to things they said 15 years ago?

I think it makes perfect sense – if somebody is going to be named into a Cabinet position and the U.S. government needs to go before the Senate for confirmation hearings, that their records are examined – that’s a natural part of the democratic process and it’d be irresponsible process not to have these conversations, not to look at people’s records. At the same time I think we have to recognize, as I have recognized working with Sen. Hagel, that the people do evolve, they do change. And you referenced to some of the comments that he made regarding the nomination of Ambassador James Hormel, who was to be the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg. Hormel was an openly gay and nominee at the time. And Sen. Hagel opposed him and made some public comments that I very much disagreed with at the time and found very objectionable, but I also have recognized that our society has come a long way over this course of 15 years. Remember, Clinton administration signed policy of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell enforcing that in our military. And President Clinton himself is in the completely different place now on this issue, as many Americans. And so I take Sen. Hagel on his word to say that he’s changed. His positions have changed. I had a pleasure to work with him, since he’s been chairman, since I worked in Council since 2009, where he has treated all of us with the greatest respect and really looked to reward talent, regardless of sexual orientation. And he’s been a strong supporter of those in the Council without any regard to sexual orientation. Sen. Hagel has worked very closely with me, I’ve learnt from his leadership and I can tell from the way that he’s led the Atlantic Council that I do think he’s evolved in his views on social issues.

And, to be clear, he’s now for open service in the military?

That’s right. He’s been very clear on that. He also formally apologized to Ambassador Hormel for the comments that he had made 15 years ago. And he’s put out on the public record before his confirmation hearing, as well as during hearings today, his support for President Obama’s policy for open service in the army and support to the families of those who serve openly.

Would you therefore characterize the ads put up by the republicans as “unfair”?

I think there’re unfortunately sharp and edged ads. Those ads and even more broadly the nature of this confirmation process it’s a bit unusual in the American political system – to see well-financed organizations being formed on both sides to take on nominees on Cabinet positions. This is not a Supreme Court nomination, which is a life-time appointment. This is President Obama’s selection of who he wants to be in his team for the next 4 years of his mandate. And I think the President deserves a degree of latitude in choosing who he wants to be in these positions. And at the same time, a rigorous confirmation process is fine and quite appropriate. What does concern is political forces galvanizing and treating it as if it’s an extension of a big electoral campaign with untold amounts of money, undisclosed donors, sharp negative ads. I think it’s moving it a bit too far.

Maybe they missed the election cycle. In 2008 Hagel also referred to a “Jewish lobby”. He called it “intimidating” and he’s shown less support to Israel. Do you believe that Hagel is anti-Israel?

No, not at all. Sen. Hagel has spoken very clearly on the issue and how Israel is special ally of the U.S. and has a particular role to play in the Middle East. Probably every issue that’s come up in Congress related to Israel he’s backed. Now what he said was inappropriate. He acknowledges it, it was “a poor use of words”. But I think the point Sen. Hagel was trying to underscore is really more about his approach to issues. You see that across the board on the range of issues. Just because Hagel was a republican senator serving from Nebraska, he didn’t automatically want to sit in a particular category on particular issue. He wanted to take issues one by one and decide for himself, where we needed to be. By doing so, he developed a reputation for independence.


In part three, Abed Ayob, director of legal and policy affairs at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, discuss Hagel, Israel and the Middle East.

About Carmen Munir Russell-Sluchansky 360 Articles
Carmen is a multimedia journalist based in Washington, DC whose work has appeared in a variety of outlets including National Geographic, NBC News, the BBC, Asia! Magazine, The China Post, Chicago Tribune and Orlando Sentinel.