WASHINGTON – John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s likely picks to head his second-term national security Cabinet, have much in common, including decorated service in Vietnam and opposition to the Iraq war.
Perhaps more important, they also share the prospect of quick and painless Senate confirmations if they are nominated. Avoiding a fight with Republicans is a boon as Obama confronts conflicts with Congress over taxes and a war of words that scuttled the expected nomination of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice as secretary of state.
Obama is expected to announce as soon as this week that Kerry, a longtime Democratic senator from Massachusetts, will be his choice to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as secretary of state. Kerry was regarded as Obama’s second choice until Rice withdrew her name from consideration Thursday amid Republican threats of a bruising Senate confirmation fight.
Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska who is regarded as a moderate, would succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Clinton and Panetta have announced plans to leave office soon. Their successors, along with a replacement for disgraced CIA director David Petraeus, are expected to be named before Christmas.
Kerry and Hagel share Obama’s pragmatic approach to national security. Assuming they are nominated and confirmed, the two men will quickly face thorny decisions on the diplomatic and military fronts. Among them will be possible military intervention in Syria and Iran, closing down the Afghanistan war and how to engage a changing Middle East and a rising China.
No longer focused on salvaging Rice’s candidacy, White House officials Friday began warming to the idea of Kerry as chief diplomat. Officials who previously discounted Kerry’s candidacy hailed his international stature, the missions he has undertaken for Obama in the past four years and the ease with which he would probably be confirmed by his Senate colleagues.
“He’s extremely knowledgeable. He’s creative on foreign policy issues. He’s somebody who wants to solve problems and is prepared to take some risks to do so,” said a former senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because a nomination has not been announced.
After a losing 2004 presidential campaign in which he was accused of being an Iraq war defeatist who was too willing to talk to America’s adversaries, Kerry found his place in the foreign policy spotlight under Obama. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, a job he took over when Joe Biden became vice president, Kerry became an activist in the Senate and a trusted administration emissary.
Kerry traveled to Afghanistan in the fall of 2009 and persuaded President Hamid Karzai to accept a runoff election. Kerry played a similar role for the administration in Pakistan, where he helped broker the release of a CIA contractor arrested on suspicion of murder and later persuaded the Pakistanis to return parts of a U.S. stealth helicopter that crashed during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He was the first senior U.S. elected official to meet with Mohamed Morsi before and after he became Egypt’s president.
Still, Kerry is not personally close to Obama, and he has accumulated many critics after nearly 30 years in the Senate.
The so-called “Swift Boat” veterans, who attacked his record as a decorated naval officer in Vietnam during his presidential campaign have already voiced disapproval of his potential selection. He also is likely to face questions over his dealings with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad before the civil war.
Hagel would give the administration a bipartisan boost, although the most conservative Republicans consider him suspect. His moderate views on most foreign policy issues are roughly in line with Obama’s first-term agenda, and his Republican credentials may make planned cuts to the Pentagon budget more palatable.
Part of Hagel’s appeal to Obama is his history as an early Republican dissenter on Iraq, the issue Obama rode to prominence as a freshman senator. Hagel called the Iraq troop surge “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”
Hagel’s chief drawback is likely to be opposition from prominent U.S. supporters of Israel, who question his commitment to Israeli security.
At a White House Hanukkah party Thursday night, after Hagel’s name had surfaced as the likely defense nominee, several prominent Democratic Jewish advocates complained that he voted against Israel’s interests while in the Senate.
Hagel voted against Iran sanctions in 2004, 2007 and 2008, and he declined to join a call on the European Union to designate Hezbollah a terrorist group. After leaving office, he urged Obama to open talks with Hamas, which opposes Israel’s existence.