President Obama continued with the task of fleshing out his second-term cabinet on Monday, selecting two men for important national security posts that indicate a decidedly hawkish shift in his administration.
The president’s decision also ushers in a potentially two-sided political fight, with conservatives and progressives each taking issue with the men nominated for defense secretary — former Republican senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska – and chief of the CIA – current counterterrorism advisor John Brennan.
Only weeks after naming Sen. John Kerry — a fellow centrist with traditional foreign policy views – as his choice to replace Hillary Clinton at the State Department, Obama introduced the two newest members of prospective cabinet in a ceremony on Monday, praising the records of both Hagel and Brennan while chiding Congress to “get moving” on a swift confirmation.
President Barack Obama on Monday nominated former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel as his next defense secretary and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to head the CIA, potentially setting up at least one Senate confirmation battle and establishing a tough tone to start his second term.
“I hope that the Senate will act on these confirmations promptly. When it comes to national security, we don’t like to leave a lot of gaps between the time that one set of leaders transitions out and another transitions in. So we need to get moving quickly on this,” Obama said in announcing them.
The president’s hope for a “quick” confirmation on either of the two nominations was dashed even before the official announcement this week by simmering conservative resentment and opposition, especially to Hagel, whom some describe as an “in-your-face” selection designed to taunt the GOP. Despite his status as a fellow Republican and being lavished with praise and recommendations for cabinet posts by some of the same GOP players just a few years ago, conservative lawmakers have lashed out at Obama for the choice of the Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient.
Much of the Republican backlash to Hagel is strictly personal: the former senator from Nebraska was a sharp critic of President George W. Bush and made enemies during his time in the Senate for his carefully cultivated reputation as a “maverick.”
Also at issue for many conservatives is his independent tone on policy towards Israel. Jewish lobby groups and neo-conservative illuminati have attacked Hagel for his record of critical comments directed at “the Jewish lobby” and the government of Israel. In 2008, Hagel offered the retort that he is “not an Israeli senator” when asked to defend his criticism of Israeli policy.
White House officials have been preparing for a political fight over Hagel, and to a lesser extent Brennan, for weeks, and now the president and his allies are ready to “dig in” and stand against any contested confirmation.
But catching the administration off guard is a strain of progressive opposition to both Hagel and Brennan as cabinet members equally as vocal as any conservative agitation. These attacks from the left have weakened support for the president’s nominees among many considered the core of Obama’s political support.
Even as Republicans rally to make Obama’s choices a partisan litmus test for conservatives, many Democrats have been forced to refrain from outright support due to rising progressive anger over the very records the president cited as reason for elevating these two men to such important positions.
Separate from any debate over merits, some progressives have expressed opposition to Hagel and Brennan — and to secretary of state nominee John Kerry before them — over the simple question of demographics: after winning reelection on the backs of strong minority and female turnout, President Obama has selected three elderly white men to his top second-term cabinet slots even as questions are raised over the whether women are being marginalized out of powerful position among Obama’s advisers.
More crucial to the progressive rage against Hagel is what many describe as a dismal record on gay rights.With the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the acceptance of openly gay troops one of the few truly progressive milestones from Obama’s first term, his embrace of Hagel is viewed by gay activists as a troubling step backwards and a potential threat to gay service members.
While on Capitol Hill, Hagel repeatedly went on record with opposition to abolition of DADT, joining his fellow social conservatives in expressing worries about the effectiveness of the military if gays were allowed to openly serve. Some media outlets point to his support for banning gays in the military as reflective of a deeper attitude of “homophobia” held by Hagel.
But the most controversial incident in Hagel’s career was his derision of an openly gay ambassadorial nominee, claiming Clinton nominee James Hormel’s “aggressively” gay lifestyle was an “inhibiting factor” in being able to do his job.
The Omaha World-Herald reported in 1998: “Ambassadorial posts are sensitive, Hagel explained. ‘They are representing America,’ he said [in an interview]. ‘They are representing our lifestyle, our values, our standards. And I think it is an inhibiting factor to be gay — openly aggressively gay like Mr. Hormel — to do an effective job.’”
With Hagel in the news as a likely presidential cabinet nominee, the Washington Post went back to Hormel for a response to Obama’s decision and whether he believes Hagel is sincere in his apology for the 1998 comments or his insistence that his views on gay Americans have evolved. Hormel was not impressed.
But in an interview this afternoon, the target of the 1998 slur, leading gay philanthropist James Hormel, told me he never received an apology from Hagel himself, questioned the sincerity of the apology, and said the incident should still raise questions about whether Hagel is the right man to oversee the repeal of don’t ask don’t tell.
“I have not received an apology,” Hormel, who is a major figure in Democratic politics, told me. “I thought this so-called apology, which I haven’t received, but which was made public, had the air of being a defensive move on his part.” Hormel added that the apology appeared to have been given “only in service of his attempt to get the nomination.”
Hagel’s controversial record has proven too much for many gay rights groups that had enthusiastically backed President Obama’s reelection campaign, catching the White House off guard when they believed the greatest threat to the president’s picks would come from the right.
While many in the gay community saw the president’s success in ending DADT and publicly endorsing marriage equality as landmark events in the fight for gay right in the United States, the nomination of Hagel and the threat it may pose to gay and lesbian service members is “unacceptable” for groups like Human Rights Campaign.
Former senator Chuck Hagel, widely viewed as President Obama’s likely choice to lead the Pentagon and already under fire from some pro-Israel supporters, faced a new level of resistance Thursday from activists upset over his record on gay rights.
The sharpest criticism came from the Human Rights Campaign, a key White House ally and the country’s leading gay rights group, whose president pointed to a 1998 comment in which Hagel questioned whether an “openly aggressively gay” nominee could be an effective U.S. ambassador.
“Senator Hagel’s unacceptable comments about gay people, coupled with his consistent anti-LGBT record in Congress, raise serious questions about where he stands on [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] equality today,” said HRC President Chad Griffin, a major fundraiser for Obama’s reelection campaign. “For him to be an appropriate candidate for any administration post, he must repudiate his comments.”
The rising concerns bubbled to the surface even after phone calls to gay rights activists in recent days from senior White House aides, including top Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. The aides told the activists that any Pentagon nominee would “live up to the principles” on gay rights established by Obama, according to several people familiar with the conversations.
Gay people proved to be among Obama’s most generous campaign donors and enthusiastic backers in this year’s reelection campaign, particularly after he decided to express his support for same-sex marriage.
Progressives are just as livid with the White House over President Obama’s other cabinet nominee introduced this week. After being passed over for the job of CIA director in the president’s first term because of his close association with “enhanced interrogation” and other Bush-era terror tactics, John Brennan will now inherit the agency at the heart of the debate over torture and the powers of the federal government in waging the “war on terror.”
Backlash from human rights activists and the progressive community to Brennan’s selection was immediate. Tagged as “Obama’s Cheney,” critics contend that Brennan’s appreciation for torture techniques and the drone warfare that has become a hallmark of Obama’s regime raise serious questions about the administration’s coming national security agenda.
Blogger Marcy Wheeler told Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now” that Brennan is a “proven liar.”
Well, what your readers, what your listeners should know, first of all, is that John Brennan has lied explicitly about drones in the past. In 2011, 2010, he basically said there had been no civilian casualties at all from drones. So when John Brennan makes public statements—he also had a famous press conference right after the killing of Osama bin Laden where he made a lot of misleading statements, as well. So, when John Brennan says something, you shouldn’t necessarily believe John Brennan. And we know from what he said in that speech, there were specific details that were inaccurate. So, Obama’s notion of being transparent with John Brennan, a proven liar, doesn’t fly.
Glenn Greenwald strikes a similar tone in The Guardian, casting Obama’s respect for Brennan’s highly controversial and legally indefensible record defines the changes in the president’s agenda over his first four years in office.
It is a perfect illustration of the Obama legacy that a person who was untouchable as CIA chief in 2008 because of his support for Bush’s most radical policies is not only Obama’s choice for the same position now, but will encounter very little resistance. Within this change one finds one of the most significant aspects of the Obama presidency: his conversion of what were once highly contentious right-wing policies into harmonious dogma of the DC bipartisan consensus. Then again, given how the CIA operates, one could fairly argue that Brennan’s eagerness to deceive and his long record of supporting radical and unaccountable powers make him the perfect person to run that agency. It seems clear that this is Obama’s calculus.