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Opinion Roundup: Obama's National Security Nominations

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And now, the Opinion Page. Washington is gearing up for a new controversy today. Earlier today President Obama announced his nominees for two key national security positions.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The work of protecting our nation is never done, and we've still got much to do - ending the war in Afghanistan and caring for those who have borne the battle, preparing for the full range of threats, from the unconventional to the conventional, including things like cyber-security; and within our military, continuing to ensure that our men and women in uniform can serve the country they love no matter who they love. To help meet the challenges of our time, I'm proud to announce my choice for two key members of my national security team - Chuck Hagel for secretary of Defense and John Brennan for director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

SHAPIRO: That was President Obama nominating former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel to be secretary of Defense and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to lead the CIA. The confirmation of Hagel, at least, is expected to be contentious. We're doing a roundup of opinion pieces from across the country on the nominations. If you have questions about Hagel or Brennan, give us a call and we'll do our best to answer them. The number is 1-800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation at our website; go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

NPR's Pentagon reporter Tom Bowman is here with us in Studio 3A to talk more about the Obama administration's national security goals for the second term. Welcome back, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Why these two men? Why these choices?

BOWMAN: Well, first of all, I think with former secretary - Senator Chuck Hagel, there's a kindred spirit with Hagel, I think. First of all, he's, you know, he endorsed President Obama back in 2008, instead of his former Republican colleague, John McCain. And they have similar views on the use of the American military. Chuck Hagel through his Vietnam experience is very wary of committing U.S. troops on these long wars, never-ending wars. And also he believes that the Defense budget should be cut even more, unlike many Republicans. So along those lines they're sort of kindred spirits, I guess you could say.

SHAPIRO: Well, since this is the Opinion Page segment on the program, talk about some of the opinions about Hagel that have been coming out, a lot of pushback, mostly from Republicans.

BOWMAN: That's right, particularly Senator John McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham, both Republicans. They're concerned about - that they see Hagel as not strong enough on Iran, that on occasion he has voted against sanctions on Iran, that he doesn't seem to be sufficiently militaristic toward Iran, and you hear that from - also pro-Israeli groups as well. They're worried that he will let the Iranians build a bomb. I think that's what they're saying, that he's not, you know, out there basically saying we may take military action against you.

He'd prefer negotiation to military action. I think that's what causes them concern. Clearly, some of this with John McCain is personal. Hagel endorsed Obama over John McCain back in 2008. And also, I think, some of this has to do with defense cuts. Most Republicans don't want to see the Pentagon cut anymore, and Hagel has called the defense budget bloated, and said he believes there's a lot more room for cuts.

SHAPIRO: Well, here are a couple of opinions about the Hagel nomination. The first one is a pro-Hagel opinion piece by Ryan Crocker. And Ryan Crocker was a former U.S. ambassador for Lebanon, Syria, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan, et cetera. He writes, in part: Mr. Hagel understands far better than most the evils of Hamas and Hezbollah, both backed by Iran. He also appreciates the importance of looking in and among those groups for fishers that might lead to internal debate, dissension or division, or even to areas of agreement with the U.S.

And then on the other side, there's an editorial in the Weekly Standard from William Kristol, who has lead a lot of the opposition to Hagel. And in this editorial, Kristol writes: His backers can cite no significant legislation for which Hagel was responsible in his two terms in the Senate. They can quote no memorable speeches that Hagel delivered, and can cite no profound passages from the book he authored. They can summarize no perceptive Hagelian analysis of defense or foreign policy, and can appeal to no active management or leadership by the man they would have as our next secretary of defense - so a bit of pro and anti-Hagel opinion there. Tom Bowman?

BOWMAN: That's right. And it's funny you mentioned the management part of this, and I've heard that from several other people, as well, who are against Hagel, saying, listen. He has no management experience. Senators tend not to make very good managers. They're used to giving speeches, taking positions on certain issues. They don't really run anything. But what you have to remember, too, is two defense secretaries who had a great deal of managerial experience, Robert McNamara and Donald Rumsfeld, are widely seen as two of the worst defense secretaries in the nation's history.

SHAPIRO: Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent, let's take a call. Hold on. John from Houston, Texas, is on the line with us. Hi, John. Go ahead.

JOHN: Hello. Thank you for taking my call.

SHAPIRO: Sure. Go ahead.

JOHN: I'd like to know if the choice that these two gentlemen give any outlook for a so-called Obama doctrine on international relations.

SHAPIRO: Thanks, John.

JOHN: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent, what do you think? What do these choices tell us about what President Obama plans for a second term foreign policy agenda?

BOWMAN: Well, he's made it clear - Defense Secretary Panetta made clear, as well, they want to get out of Afghanistan. They're moving to a security agreement, a 10-year security agreement with as few troops as possible, from what indications they're sending out so far. They're also talking about building alliances and coalitions around the world, and they're also talking about moving toward Asia, the so-called pivot to Asia. So I think that's what we're going to be seeing in the second Obama administration, moving in that direction. Getting out of Afghanistan would be the number one priority, I think.

SHAPIRO: The other nominee, who we've talked a little bit less about, John Brennan, to run the CIA. And there's been much less push back against him. But there's was an op-ed piece in The New York Times by Gregory Johnsen, who writes, in part, under Mr. Brennan's guidance, the United States has adopted a controversial method for determining how many civilians it has killed, counting all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants. And he goes on: The strikes that Mr. Brennan asks the president to approve frequently lead to civilian causalities.

In contrast, on the other hand, President Obama said in the nomination today, John knows what our national security demands: intelligence that provides policymakers with the facts, strong analytic insights and a keen understand of a dynamic world. Given his extensive experience in travels, the president said - which include traveling through the Arabian Peninsula, where he camped with tribesmen in the desert - John has an invaluable perspective on the forces, the history, the culture, the politics, the economics, the desire for human dignity driving so much of the changes in today's world. And there, roughly, we have the view of Brennan as a consummate insider and the view of Brennan as the architect of these very controversial counter-terror programs.

BOWMAN: They are very controversial. And people I talked with at The Pentagon are worried a bit about this. They say this is a tool that is being used so much, particularly by the Obama administration, much more so than the Bush administration. A lot of people are dying, some of them civilians. And the concern is: Where is this whole policy going, using drone attacks in Pakistan, in Yemen, in Somalia?

You could see them elsewhere in the African continent, particularly if there's military action in a place like Mali - a lot more American soldiers going on training missions throughout the northern part of Africa, going after al-Qaida. So there's a concern about this drone policy sweeping, really, around the world, without any really good controls. And people I talk with in The Pentagon say, well, hang on a second. What if we see China using these drones against dissidents someplace?

SHAPIRO: They're getting smaller. They're getting cheaper. They're getting more ubiquitous. The U.S. is using them more than ever before. And really, Brennan is sort of the guy who helped create this, for better or for worse.

BOWMAN: Exactly. It's really a double-edged sword people at The Pentagon will tell you, and they're worried about it.

SHAPIRO: Let's go to another call. This is Al in Tucson, Arizona. Hi, Al.

AL: Hi. Good afternoon.

SHAPIRO: Go ahead.

AL: As to Senator Hagel, do you think any of the Republican opposition is really principled and based in Iran or the gay comments or Israel? Or is it really just petty political payback for not endorsing Senator McCain? And I think then-Senator Hagel had been critical of Ronald Reagan in a Senate report on Iran-Contra. Is it really just that?

SHAPIRO: What do you think, Tom Bowman?

BOWMAN: Yeah, I think it's all of the above. I think some of it is petty politics, easily bruised feelings from Chuck Hagel. I think some of it has to do with Iran. They want to be tougher on Iran. Some of it has to do with what - some of the things he said about Israel. I think it's all of that, wrapped into one. Hagel is a real maverick, and he's not easily definable and he's not an easy Republican vote. And that rubs the people the wrong way.

SHAPIRO: Thanks for the call. And, Tom, that caller referenced Hagel's gay comments. That's a reference to 1998, 14 years ago, when Hagel referred to an ambassador to Luxembourg, James Hormel, as openly, aggressively gay, and said he should not be selected as an ambassador to represent to the United States. Hagel has apologized for that comment. His apology was accepted by the gay rights group HRC, the Human Rights Campaign. Log Cabin Republicans, the conservative gay group, took out a full page ad in The New York Times opposing Hagel's record on gay rights. Is this likely to a significant factor?

BOWMAN: Well, it could be a factor. And also, Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts, the first openly gay member of Congress, came out against those comments and said, you know, how can someone, you know, be nominated for a big position in the administration after making those kind of comments? So this is an issue that probably won't die. But again, you have divisions, I think, in the gay community, some groups coming out and saying, we don't want see Hagel as a nominee. Others saying, well, he apologized for his comments, and we'll take him and his word.

SHAPIRO: The other big line of pushback on Hagel has to do with Israel. Describe what he is being accused of there and what the arguments for and against are.

BOWMAN: Well, referred it one time in an interview to the Jewish lobby, and that rankled a lot of people. Obviously, it's a loaded term saying the Jewish lobby when he meant to say the Israeli lobby, and how much control it had on politicians in Washington. And so there was a concern. Some said that, you know, hinted of a bit of anti-Semitism on his part. Others came to his defense.

But, you know, heading down that road of talking about the Israeli lobby in Washington is always be very perilous. He (unintelligible) in an in-artful way and, again, he back away from that and said and I shouldn't have said that Jewish lobby. I should've said the Israeli lobby. But I think he'll have problems with that, as well, we move forward in the nomination.

SHAPIRO: We're talking about President Obama's second-term national security team, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let's look at another two opinions about Hagel. Tom Bowman, Pentagon correspondent, you described him as sort of an iconoclast, a guy who sings to his tune, marches to his own drummer, what have you. Well, here are - there are two opinions that see that as both a good thing and a bad thing. First, in the Weekly Standard, the conservative publication, Philip Terzian writes: It is likely that Hagel's appeal to Barack Obama derives from his status as a sometime Republican critic of the foreign and defense policies of the Bush administration, especially after the Iraq war.

Presumably, this gives him a certain independent status. But it scarcely endears him to former Republican colleagues in Congress, and would hardly set him apart within the Obama White House. Hagel is equally famous for his choleric temperament and occasional offhand pronouncements that offend such loyal Democrats as Barney Frank. Simply stated, he says, there is no evidence that Chuck Hagel has the experience or temperament to master the gigantic defense establishment or deal effectively with Congress on delicate issues.

Then, on the contrary, Michael Hirsh in the National Journal sees this as a positive point. He argues: The truth about Chuck Hagel is that he saw, before most, that America was embarking on an unparalleled strategic disaster by diverting its attention from al-Qaida a decade ago. He saw and had the courage to say that his own president and party were failing to anticipate the enormous cost of going into Iraq and of losing focus in Afghanistan. He continues: We are still paying dearly for that mistake in blood and treasure, and yet very few people who supported it - senators, pundits, editors - have shown the integrity thus far to admit that they were wrong and that Hagel was right.

BOWMAN: This is the Chuck Hagel kaleidoscope. You can refer it in any way you want, and you'll get the Chuck Hagel that you want to see.

SHAPIRO: Everyone agrees he's an iconoclast, anyway.

BOWMAN: Exactly. Right. He will be hit, I think, during the hearings, particularly by Senator McCain, for his stance on the surge in Iraq back in 2007. He was against it. They sent 30,000 troops over. I was reporting from Iraq at that time, and clearly, the surge did help turn things around. It brought down a level of violence in Iraq. So watch for McCain to him hard on that, you know, calling into questions of judgment, for example, on the question of the surge. But then again, a lot of people at the time were against the surge, and many people today will look at the Iraq war and say: Was it worth it? Some at the Pentagon I talk with say it was the biggest strategic blunder this country has made in its history.

SHAPIRO: Tom, talk a little bit about the politics of this. President Obama backed down from nominating Susan Rice to be secretary of state, picking Senator Kerry instead. Is it that just that he couldn't afford to back down twice?

BOWMAN: Yeah, some people mentioned that, that he would be seen as weak if he backed down on still another nomination. So I don't know what his reasoning was. I mean, clearly, there are a lot of, you know, plus sides to Hagel. He's a war hero. He's a Republican. He's a businessman. So he does have a lot experience. He founded one of the early cell phone companies. He was a deputy at the Veteran's Administration. He ran the USO. So...

SHAPIRO: In those respects, he sounds like the profile of a classic Republican of a sort of fixed mold.

BOWMAN: Exactly. That's right. So, you know, it's hard to see why so many are against him. And you wonder if some of this opposition will just kind of evaporate during the hearing process, because you're not seeing a lot of substance against Hagel at this point. There are a couple of comments here and there, couple of positions. And his supporters come back and say, look at his voting record. Look at his speeches. Look at the books he's written. Look what he said about Israel, for example, that he's a strong supporter of Israel. So, again, it's hard to predict where this will go. But you could see some of the opposition again evaporate as the hearings progress and he gives his side of the story.

SHAPIRO: And Tom, both of these guys - Chuck Hagel in the Defense Department and John Brennan at the CIA - have a long, long history, Brennan as a CIA analyst, Hagel as guy who volunteered to fight in Vietnam alongside his brother. President Obama talked about pulling his brother to safety after a grenade blast. What impact does it have that these are guys with a history, with a connection to the frontlines of the organizations where they're appointed?

BOWMAN: I think it's hugely important. These guys are rough-and-tumble people who have been out there in the field, in John Brennan's case as a CIA, you know, station chief in Saudi Arabia, and in Hagel's case, wounded in Vietnam, two Purple Hearts. These are real, serious rough-and-tumble guys. And I think, you know, the argument on the Obama side is these are the kind of guys you want out there fighting for you.

SHAPIRO: Well, stay with NPR News as we cover the ongoing confirmation battles over Chuck Hagel, John Brennan. Secretary - Senator John Kerry in line to be secretary of state as President Obama's second-term national security team comes together. Tom Bowman is NPR's Pentagon reporter, and joined us here in Studio 3A. Thanks for being with us.

BOWMAN: You're welcome.

SHAPIRO: Tomorrow, join us for a look at the top man in Damascus: President Bashar al-Assad of Syria. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Ari Shapiro, in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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