Senators grill Hagel over anti-Israel remarks

Washington, Feb. 1: Barack Obama may be the most powerful man on earth who won the battle for America's presidency twice, but barely two weeks into his second term Obama risks defeat from a foreign country that is not even one-eighth the size of Florida and their lobbyists in Washington.

Chuck Hagel, Obama's nominee to be America's 24th secretary of defence, was yesterday humiliated in a nearly eight-hour grilling on Capitol Hill when the world saw Hagel apologising for his remarks that were perceived as anti-Israel and the nominee grovelling for forgiveness for having said some home truths about the Jewish lobby here.

If the money and resources being poured into an orchestrated campaign to block Hagel's nomination does not split the 55 Democrats in the 100-member Senate, the former Republican Senator from Nebraska may yet win confirmation to head the Pentagon.

However, he will be sworn in as a much chastened man who will not forget for a long time the heavy price that American politicians have to pay if they dare to utter a word against Israel.

Senators who are nominated for cabinet posts normally sail through confirmation hearings with ease: John Kerry's appointment this week as secretary of state was little more than a formality with his colleagues heaping praise on him and grilling him was farthest from the mind of any senator.

But Hagel had committed the indiscretion of saying five years ago that "the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people" on Capitol Hill into taking actions on behalf of Israel and often contrary to America's interests. It is a statement that any American who is objective knows to be true, but most people also know that anyone saying it in public risks losing everything he values.

"I am sorry and I regret it," Hagel pleaded for forgiveness with members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that was considering his nomination yesterday. "On the use of 'intimidation', I should have used 'influence', I think would have been more appropriate."

On another occasion, Hagel chastised Israel for "keep(ing) Palestinians caged up like animals", which is also a charge that is not far from the truth. But yesterday he was forced to tell his former colleagues who had turned into inquisitors that "if I had an opportunity to edit that, like many things I have said, I would like to go back and change the words".

Republicans had other reasons to haul Hagel over the coals. He is an apostate among them, having opposed George W. Bush's 2006 "surge" in Iraq with additional troops and then argued in the Senate that it "represents the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam".

It is almost unheard of that a senator from a nominee's home state opposes a cabinet nominee who served as a senator from the same state. But yesterday, Deb Fischer, the new Republican senator from Hagel's own Nebraska, indicated that she would vote against the defence secretary-designate calling him "extreme" and "far to the Left" of Obama. Although Obama is not a Leftist by any yardstick, Republicans view him as one.

Seantor John McCain, who was defeated by Obama in the 2008 US presidential election was unsparing in his attack on Hagel for his stand against the Iraqi surge. Their exchange, which ignited the committee room went like this, in part:

McCain: Do you stand by that ' those comments, Senator Hagel?

Hagel: Well, Senator, I stand by them because I made them. McCain: You stand by ' were you right?

Hagel: Well

McCain: I want to know if you were right or wrong. That's a direct question. I expect a direct answer.

Hagel: The surge assisted in the objective. But if we review the record a little bit

McCain: Will you please answer the question? Were you correct or incorrect when you said that the surge would be the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam? Were you correct or incorrect?

Hagel: My

McCain: Yes or no?

Hagel: My reference to the surge being both dangerous

McCain: Are you going to answer the question, Senator Hagel? The question is, were you right or wrong? That's a pretty straightforward question.

Hagel: Well

It was an unusual exchange for its lack of cordiality because both McCain and Hagel are Vietnam war veterans, both recipients of "Purple Heart" decoration given to the wounded.

Republicans are opposing Hagel also for his views on Iran, which are not consistent with Tel Aviv's hawkish stand of which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is an embodiment. "I think engagement is clearly in our interest," Hagel told the committee yesterday.

Republicans were outraged. One of them, Saxby Chambliss, immediately accused the nominee of wanting to negotiate with a "terrorist state".

Hagel responded that "engagement is not appeasement. Engagement is not surrender", but his inquisitors would not listen. So intense were their attacks on Hagel that at one point the former Senator was so unnerved into misrepresenting Obama's stand on Iran.

There is a convention in the Senate that the chamber normally lets the President have his way on cabinet appointments. But if the campaign against Hagel builds up and splits the Democrats, the Republicans may be emboldened to "filibuster" his nomination, for which they need 60 votes.

But they are not there yet and the conventional wisdom is that Hagel may be approved strictly on a vote on party lines.

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