WASHINGTON – The supporting cast for Secretary of Defense nominee Chuck Hagel has a notable Georgia twang.
Behind the scenes, former Georgia Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Cleland is working to build support for his fellow Vietnam War veteran and former Senate colleague. Cleland, who lost his seat in 2002 to Saxby Chambliss, was in the front row for Thursday morning’s confirmation hearing before the Armed Services Committee but declined to comment as Hagel’s nomination is still pending.
Seated next to Hagel was former Georgia Democratic U.S. Sen. Sam Nunn, who once chaired the committee. Nunn and former Armed Services chair John Warner, a Virginia Republican, introduced Hagel and lent bipartisan and powerful backing for the nominee. Senators tend to respect powerful former senators.
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, has been a controversial pick on the left and the right – his alleged sins include insufficient backing of Israel and insensitivity toward gays. The committee’s top Republican, James Inhofe of Oklahoma, used his opening statement to declare that he will not vote for Hagel.
That made the most important word in Nunn’s nine-minute speech “mainstream.”
“From our service together on the Defense Policy Board, I know that Chuck has a very clear worldview, and that it aligns with the mainstream of U.S. foreign and defense policy,” Nunn said. “Chuck Hagel believes that we must build and preserve American strength as a force for good in the world. He realizes that protecting our interests requires strong allies and friends and strong American leadership.”
Nunn spoke extensively about his chief Senate legacy and post-Senate occupation, nuclear proliferation. He called Hagel a “balanced and responsible voice on nuclear weapons policy.” Then Nunn added a quote from a GOP favorite: “President Reagan said it often and said it well – a nuclear war cannot be won, and must not be fought.”
Combined with Chambliss, who serves on on the committee, there were about 40 years of Senatorial service to Georgia in the hearing room this morning.
Update: 12:08 p.m.
Chambliss appeared skeptical of Hagel, noting their friendship on the Senate Intelligence Committee as Republican colleagues but saying “you cast some votes I questioned.”
One of those votes was against designating the Iran Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization. It was a controversial 2007 vote that cleared the Senate without Hagel’s support – among 22 Democrats and Republicans, including now-President Barack Obama and now-Secretary of State John Kerry.
Hagel said calling an official arm of a United Nations country a terrorist organization was unprecedented and he felt it would also have authorized President George W. Bush to attack Iran.
More broadly, Chambliss wanted to explore Hagel’s views on Iran, which are controversial among Republicans. He read passages from Hagel’s book in which the former senator signaled more willingness for diplomacy than force.
“If your position is truly prevention and not containment [of a nuclear Iran], what is the red line?” Chambliss asked. “We know there are some things happening right now that are serious, so how far do we go? Do you still advocate direct negotiations with Iran?”
Hagel said he did not want to publicly discuss “red lines,” and that he would defer to the president on that subject. On engaging diplomatically with Iran, Hagel said:
“I think we’re always on higher ground in every way – international law, domestic law, people in the world, people in region to be with us on this if we’ve tried and we’ve gone through every possibility to resolve this in a responsible peaceful way rather than going to war.”
- By Daniel Malloy, Political Insider