Battle brewing on defense chief

Battle brewing on defense chief

Presidents who back away from Senate confirmation fights unwittingly undermine their own authority.

Two weeks ago, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, withdrew her name from consideration as the successor to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

It was, in one sense, a curious move by Rice because she withdrew from consideration before her name was submitted to the U.S. Senate for confirmation. But by acting as she did, Rice was simply opting out of a confirmation fight that was guaranteed following the controversy over her actions in the aftermath of the terrorist attack on the United States diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, where four Americans died.

Now another confirmation fight is brewing, with more potential embarrassment for President Barack Obama. Having lost a fight before it even started on Rice, Obama's reputed top choice for secretary of defense, former Nebraska U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, has come under attack — from Republicans but, more dangerously, from Democrats.

Hagel is receiving criticism primarily for his past criticism of Israel and his support for cuts in the defense budget.

As a general rule, all presidents ought to be allowed to pick the members of their administrative team. If Obama wants Hagel in the Defense Department, he ought to be allowed to have him — absent a disqualifying reason.

Obama said on Sunday there is no reason for Hagel not to serve as defense secretary, heaping praise on him as "someone who has done extraordinary work both in the U.S. Senate and somebody who's served this country with valor in Vietnam."

More important than that, however, is that Hagel's policy views are in step with Obama's.

The president has made no secret of his desire to cut the Defense Department down to size, and he's gone out of his way to make it clear that he doesn't mind parting ways with Israel on issues relating to gaining a peace agreement in the Middle East.

Some people may not agree with those positions. But when voters re-elected Obama to a second term, they were ratifying his approach both in policy and personnel.

Hagel comes under the category of personnel. He's the man who appears to be Obama's No. 1 choice to lead the Defense Department. To criticize Hagel for holding views that reflect the positions of the recently re-elected commander-in-chief seems inconsistent.

It's unclear just how this political drama will play out. If enough pressure is brought to bear, Hagel may cave just as Rice did. That would deny Obama his first choice for another important Cabinet post while diminishing his reputation as a leader who gets his way.

Of course, it's not the Republican opposition to Hagel that's the problem. If anything is clear, President Obama relishes confronting congressional Republicans. Obama's problem is potential opposition from Senate Democrats.

Democrats control the Senate, and they can muscle Hagel through the confirmation process if Obama demands their obeisance on this important issue.

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