Heather Hurlburt Quoted in Politico Discussing Chuck Hagel

December 20, 2012

Hagel circus could mean ‘new universe’ for nominees

By DARREN SAMUELSOHN AND KATE BRANNEN

Decemeber 12, 2012|Politico

Washington’s latest sideshow is the Chuck Hagel Circus, and it’s got a little something for everyone.

The new: Social media campaigns on Twitter and Facebook. The old: Paul Wolfowitz and Zbigniew Brzezinski, a pair of voices from the past.

The left: Barney Frank, coming to bat for a man he hopes will take over the Pentagon and then cut its budget. The right: Bill Kristol, who condemned Hagel as “anti-Israel” and, along with other critics, proffering the name of someone else — former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy — to take over the Defense Department from Leon Panetta.

In the center of the ring stands Hagel himself, the former Republican senator from Nebraska whom the White House has leaked as its top choice for Defense secretary, but has not actually been nominated.

With an announcement still pending, Hagel can’t speak out on his own behalf. His friend, President Barack Obama, can’t go to bat for him in public the way he did for his other ally, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, when she came under fire as a possible nominee for secretary of State. And with three other major narratives soaking up Washington’s precious but limited bandwidth — the ongoing fiscal cliff saga, a renewed focus on gun violence following Friday’s mass shooting in Connecticut and the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye, the long-serving senator from Hawaii — there was no sign Thursday the Hagel sideshow would conclude any time soon.

So inside the national security establishment, the blows and counter-blows over Hagel rage on. After several days of attacks from Jewish groups and Israel advocates that Hagel’s record showed he would not be a big enough defender as Defense secretary, Hagel’s allies’ first task was to try to change that narrative.

They turned to Twitter, starting an account called “@SupportHagel” and with a convenient hashtag, #chuckhagelfacts. They created a Facebook page, “Chuck Hagel Supporters,” which had a photo but no words as of POLITICO’s check this afternoon. And they reached out through traditional conduits to the press, including with a fact sheet about Hagel and a letter, obtained by POLITICO, signed by nine former ambassadors lending him their support.

Part of the challenge for the White House is trying to walk a tightrope between what it’s willing to leak to reporters — Hagel’s our guy — and what it’s willing to say publicly. Its top spokesman, Jay Carney, illustrated that dichotomy Thursday afternoon when a reporter asked him about a comment that has become a lightning rod for Hagel opponents: His 2006 allusion in an interview to the influence of “the Jewish lobby.”

“You ought to address that question to Senator Hagel,” Carney said. “We’ve been through this before, with Ambassador [Susan] Rice. This is an effort to go after somebody — we haven’t nominated anyone. We’ve made no personnel announcement, and I’m not going to engage in that.”

Hagel has declined to comment, including to POLITICO, on all the reports about him since the initial White House leaks earlier this month. But for a private citizen who has not been asked to join the president’s administration, Hagel has Carney, a former journalist, eager to step up on his behalf.

“What I can say is Senator Hagel fought and bled in his country, served his country well,” Carney said. “He was an excellent senator. I can say that as much as someone who covered him as much as someone speaking for the White House, but I’m not going to take part in this process.”

He’s not the only one who has threaded the needle. On Monday, Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, who is set to become the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told POLITICO that he would “look forward” to supporting Hagel if he were nominated.

“I served with Chuck Hagel during the years he was here … got to know him pretty well,” Inhofe said. “I think it’s an excellent nomination [that] I would look forward to supporting him for,” Inhofe said, brushing off claims that he didn’t support Israel enough ”I haven’t really heard anything anti-Israel from him. … [And] there’s no one that is more pro-Israel than I am,” Inhofe said.

Then on Tuesday, Inhofe told a different POLITICO reporter he was “not real happy” with some of Hagel’s past statements on Israel, and remembered Hagel being “curt” in their interactions.

The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), also was supportive — but guarded — about Hagel.

“If he nominates him, I think he’ll have a good hearing and I think he’ll be confirmed,” Levin said in an interview. “But hearings allow people to raise whatever questions people have. Do I think he’s qualified? I do. Do I agree with everything he’s allegedly said, and I haven’t seen the context of the quotes? No.”

Levin said he wasn’t surprised by the amount of time the White House is taking before announcing Hagel or any other Pentagon appointment.

“They’re probably doing what they’re doing with Kerry,” he said, referring to Sen. John Kerry’s expected appointment as secretary of State. “They’re just taking a look in-depth at how the pieces fit. What the chemistry is. What the prospects for confirmation are. How the relations are inside the Cabinet. This is a four-year deal. They’re not being any more deliberative or cautious than is typically the case with this level of appointment.”

Levin said the Rice pullback also mattered.

“Blood in the water is true. I thought it was very, very unfair. I don’t know what it does to substantive nominations. What does it do if the deputy director of the CIA is nominated? [Mike] Morell. What does it do to his nomination? He’s the guy who approved the very points that sunk Rice. Does that mean he’s not going to be qualified even though he in good conscious believed that those were accurate. These things, when people go after people the way they went after Rice so unfairly, that has reverberations on other nominations.”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the outgoing ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said he wasn’t aware of the plans for TV attack ads or other swipes at Hagel.

“It’s a free country,” he said. “But as I said, I’d wait until he’s nominated. And obviously I have some concerns. But those I don’t think we ought to be talking much about unless he’s nominated.”

McCain said he didn’t think the White House was leaving Hagel hanging. “That kind of thing always happens,” he said. “This is a tough town as we know.”

A Senate GOP leadership aide said the White House shouldn’t be surprised by the blowback.

“He left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths around here,” the source said. And when the White House signals it’ll nominate someone and doesn’t immediately follow through, there’s a method to the madness.

“That’s how they do it,” the GOP aide added. “Until they see how it works and if some people don’t have a problem with it, then they announce it. That’s how they do it.”

That doesn’t make it any easier if it’s your guy who’s languishing in limbo.

“It’s frustrating to see the White House float his name and then not be prepared to defend him,” one former Hagel aide told POLITICO. “He didn’t ask to be considered for this job and he’s not the one who put himself out there. That said, this is a guy who has had to deal with a lot worse that the neo-con chattering class and the deep thinkers at The Washington Post editorial page. I’m not especially concerned with what they think.”

Heather Hurlburt, executive director of the left-leaning National Security Network, said that it was wrong to fault the White House for what has happened to Hagel, arguing that today’s preemptive attacks “put us in a whole different universe.”

The Hagel response might be unprecedented for national security Cabinet-level positions, Hurlburt said. Opposition didn’t used to begin in earnest until after a White House announced its nominee, she said. “Has there ever been a Washington Post editorial against someone who has not even been nominated? I don’t think so,” Hurlburt said.

The neoconservative faction within the Republican Party has suffered a string of losses — first within the Mitt Romney campaign, but then again with Obama’s reelection, she observed. It sees the ascendance of a more realist, less interventionist foreign policy and wants to use the president’s Cabinet to reverse that momentum, Hurlburt said.

If the White House backed down on Hagel, it would make it much harder to bring in new faces at the Cabinet level and weigh nominees on their merits because there are now these “pre-pre-battles.”

Mike Buttry, a former Hagel spokesman and chief of staff, took a direct swing at the Nebraska Republican’s critics. “I find it galling that anonymous cowards sit behind the comfort of their desks and attack the character of a man they do not know,” he said. “To call Chuck Hagel an anti-Semite is straight slander and a lie. In addition to serving his country in war and the Senate, he has served veterans as a leader at the VA and USO.

John Isaacs, executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said the “character assassinations” are designed to get Obama to back away from the Hagel nomination so that he never comes up for a vote in the Senate, because it would probably confirm him.

Conservatives are pushing Flournoy the same way they pushed Kerry as an alternative to Rice for secretary of State, Isaacs said. They have to push an alternative to show they’re reasonable and not against all candidates, just this specific one.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration is standing firm. It has already lost a public battle over Rice, and to back off a second nomination at the beginning of his second term, and after a successful presidential campaign, would send a weak signal and would be difficult for the president to weather, Isaacs said.

The president is trying to demonstrate a “new toughness,” on the fiscal cliff negotiations, but also the gun control issue now, Isaacs said. And with the fiscal cliff deal, some Democrats already feel like the president has made too many concessions. To back off on Hagel, following the decision on Rice, would undermine the president as begins his second term.

Democratic strategist Donna Brazile agreed.

“Two words: Susan Rice,” Brazile said. “Once a precedent has been set, it’s hard for others to step away from a trusted path to potentially derail a nominee.”

Former Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), now the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, shrugged that there’s little the White House can do to quiet the debate short of formally naming Hagel.

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