Obama defends Hagel as ‘patriot’


President Barack Obama on Sunday strongly defended former Senator Chuck Hagel as a patriot and outstanding intelligence advisor, but said he had still not decided who he would nominate to serve as his next Defense Secretary.

Obama, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday for the first time since 2009, was asked by host David Gregory, “Is there anything about Chuck Hagel's record or statements that’s disqualifying to you, should you nominate him to run the Defense Department?”

“Not that I see,” Obama responded, after saying he had not made up his mind yet about his pick for Pentagon chief.

“I've served with Chuck Hagel,” the president continued. “I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate. Somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who's currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job.”

“So I haven’t made a decision on this,” Obama said.

Hagel, who served two terms as a Republican Senator from Nebraska, apologized earlier this month for comments he made in 1998 regarding an ambassador nominee who was gay. Former US ambassador to Luxembourg James Hormel subsequently wrote on Facebook that he accepts Hagel's apology.

“Senator Hagel's apology is significant–I can't remember a time when a potential presidential nominee apologized for anything,” Hormel reportedly wrote on Facebook Dec. 22, noting that over the past “fourteen years…public attitudes have shifted–perhaps Senator Hagel has progressed with the times, too.”

Obama made the same point to Gregory. “With respect to the particular comment that you quoted, he apologized for it. And I think it's a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people's attitudes about gays and lesbians serving our country.  And that's something that I'm very proud to have led.”

Obama’s comments on the Sunday show gave no indication of when he might announce further cabinet nominations for his second term. To date since his reelection last month, Obama has nominated only Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The longtime chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel and former Democratic presidential candidate is expected to be easily confirmed. Kerry and Hagel are both Vietnam veterans.

Hagel is considered a top contender to succeed Leon Panetta as Secretary of Defense. Others reportedly on the short list are former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and current Deputy Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. Other outside possibilities mentioned include former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and current Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, a former governor of Mississippi and ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

If nominated, Flournoy–who served as the top foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign–would be the first female Secretary of Defense. Flournoy, 50, indicated to a contact this week that if she was asked, she would accept the job.

“I have certainly had a chance to recharge my batteries, and I am eager for public service in the future,” Flournoy, the mother of three teenagers, told NPR in a piece aired Dec. 23 on balancing a demanding career and parenting.

Carter, a nuclear expert who previously worked as a top aide to former Defense Secretary William Perry on reducing the threat of loose nukes in the former Soviet Union and on the North Korea nuclear threat, has also been discussed as a contender for Energy Secretary, sources told the Back Channel.

Defense sources have also suggested that another possibility is that Obama might decide to punt, and keep Panetta in the job several months longer.

Hagel, who chairs Obama’s President’s Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB), may also be a possibility for CIA director, though the current acting director, Michael Morell, is considered the front runner for the job, from which retired Gen. David Petraeus resigned last month.

Some US pro-Israel groups have also weighed in on a prospective Hagel nomination, based in part on Hagel's comments in a 2006 interview with Aaron David Miller that the “Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people” in Congress. Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told radio talk show host Zev Brimmer in an interview broadcast Saturday, that while his group has concerns, “we would live with” the choice, and “work with whoever” holds the office.

Meantime, some groups, including J Street and the Israel Policy Forum, have expressed support for a prospective Hagel nomination. Hagel's “ideas are not outside of the mainstream,” the Israel Policy Forum's chair Peter Joseph and executive director David Halperin wrote this month, sharing remarks Hagel made to the group in 2008.

Hagel “is not anti-Israeli and he is not an anti-Semite,” former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas, a former advisor to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, wrote in an article for Al-Monitor Dec. 23.

Describing several meetings he witnessed between Israeli Defense Minister Barak and Hagel, Pinkas asserted that “Barak was thoroughly impressed not only by Hagel's military background, but by his analysis, knowledge of the Middle East, and his understanding of Israel's security issues and predicaments,” he wrote, adding he has “no doubt that should Hagel lead the Pentagon and Barak remain Defense Minister …they will re-forge a very good working relationship.”

(Photo: Pete Souza/White House.)