Obama picks Chuck Hagel as next defence secretary, setting up likely confirmation fight

WASHINGTON – Defying congressional opposition, President Barack Obama will nominate Chuck Hagel as his next defence secretary, setting up a potentially contentious confirmation fight over the former Republican senator’s views on Israel and Iran.

The president will announce Hagel’s nomination from the White House Monday, a senior administration official said, requesting anonymity in order to discuss the nomination ahead of Obama. Hagel, 66, served in the Senate with Obama and the two grew close during congressional trips overseas.

A moderate Republican and decorated Vietnam veteran, Hagel would add a whiff of bipartisanship to Obama’s Cabinet if confirmed. But the former Nebraska lawmaker has faced withering criticism from Congress – Republicans in particular – since emerging as the front-runner for the Pentagon post. Still, Republican lawmakers have stopped short of saying they might try to block the nomination.

Hagel is the second straight Obama favourite for a top national security post to face criticism from Capitol Hill even before being nominated. United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice withdrew her name from consideration for secretary of state amid charges from Republican senators that she misled the public in her initial accounting of the attacks on Americans at a diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.

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After Rice withdrew, Obama named Sen. John Kerry to lead the State Department. Kerry is expected to be easily confirmed by his longtime Senate colleagues.

Seeking to soften the ground for Hagel, the White House alerted Senate Democrats on Sunday that Hagel would be nominated to succeed Defence Secretary Leon Panetta in Obama’s second-term Cabinet, according to a congressional official who requested anonymity.

If confirmed, Hagel would take over a Pentagon that faces budget cuts and a scaling back of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to meet with Obama in Washington this week to discuss the U.S. presence in his country after the war formally concludes at the end of 2014.

Hagel is likely to support a more rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, said Sunday that he was reserving judgment on whether to support Hagel. But he predicted the former Nebraska senator would face serious questions about his stands on Iran and Israel.

Any nominee must have “a full understanding of our close relationship with our Israeli allies, the Iranian threat and the importance of having a robust military,” McConnell said on ABC’s “This Week.”

Hagel has criticized discussion of a military strike by either the U.S. or Israel against Iran. He also has backed efforts to bring Iran to the table for talks on future peace in Afghanistan. Some lawmakers have been troubled by his comments and actions on Israel, including his reference to the “Jewish lobby” in the United States.

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“This is a controversial pick,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican, told CNN. “He is an antagonistic figure when it comes to the state of Israel. It’s a signal you’re sending to Iran at the worst possible time and to our allies.”

McConnell said Hagel, who left the Senate in 2009, has “certainly been outspoken in foreign policy and defence over the years. The question we will be answering, if he’s the nominee, is do his views make sense for that particular job?”

McConnell said he would “wait and see how the hearings go and see whether Chuck’s views square with the job he would be nominated to do.” He added, “I’m going to take a look at all the things that Chuck has said over the years and review that, and in terms of his qualifications to lead our nation’s military.”

The second-ranking Senate Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said in a statement that making Hagel defence secretary would be “the worst possible message we could send to our friend Israel and the rest of our allies in the Middle East.” Cornyn did not say he would try to block a Hagel nomination.

Obama, in an interview that aired last week on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” called Hagel “a patriot” who “has done extraordinary work” in the Senate and on an intelligence advisory board.

Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, told CNN’s “State of the Union” that Hagel “is a serious candidate if the president chooses to name him.”

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Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.