Obama takes on critics in nominating Chuck Hagel and John Brennan

President says Hagel would help restore bipartisan tradition and tries to separate Brennan from legacy of Bush White House

President Obama made a flag-waving appeal to patriotism in nominating Chuck Hagel as his new defence secretary on Monday, as he highlighted Hagel's military valour to deflect his Republican critics.

"Chuck Hagel's leadership of our military would be historic," Obama said in remarks to formally nominate Hagel during a ceremony at the White House. "He'd be the first person of enlisted rank to serve as secretary of defense, one of the few secretaries who've been wounded in war, and the first Vietnam veteran to lead the department."

Hagel's nomination has come under assault from Republicans who regard him as overly critical of Israel and weak in dealing with Iran. But Obama sought to turn the subject back to Hagel's bravery under fire – and remind Hagel's critics that the former Nebraska senator was battle-tested in more ways than one.

Obama noted that he enlisted in the army and volunteered in Vietnam. "Chuck bears the scars and the shrapnel from the battles he fought in our name," Obama said.

Countering criticism of Hagel as a high-profile objector to the Bush administration's "surge" offensive in Iraq, Obama reminded his listeners: "Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction. He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that's something we only do when it's absolutely necessary."

Obama was also careful to highlight that, as a former Republican politician, Hagel "represents the bipartisan tradition that we need more of in Washington."

But some Republicans – including some who served alongside him during Hagel's 12 years in the Senate – remained hostile. Several GOP senators say they want "clarification" of Hagel's views on Israel and Iran. House majority leader Eric Cantor – who has no sway over the nomination – issued a statement that "Hagel is the wrong man for the job at such a pivotal time" and warning that "Hagel's incendiary views of Israel are only the tip of the iceberg."

Hagel has also been critical of the use of military force against Iran by the US as well as voicing support for Iran's involvement in peace talks in Afghanistan, and has been unusually forthright for a US politician is discussing what he described as the "Jewish lobby" in the US, describing pro-Israel lobby group Aipac as "powerful". Hagel has previously supported direct talks between the US and leaders of Hamas.

When Hagel's nomination was first floated, groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition were quick to object, citing what it called his "failure to support Israel".

"The appointment of Chuck Hagel would be a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel," it said in a statement.

The White House is gearing up for a battle over Hagel's nomination in the Senate. On Monday morning it rolled out a statement in support by Senator Jack Reed, a Democratic member of the Senate armed services committee, saying: "Chuck Hagel will make an outstanding Secretary of Defense. He is highly qualified and his record of service to this country as a decorated combat veteran, successful CEO, senator and statesman is extraordinary."

The National Jewish Democratic Council also joined the fray: "While we have expressed concerns in the past, we trust that when confirmed, former Senator Chuck Hagel will follow the President's lead of providing unrivalled support for Israel," it said.

Hagel's nomination has also come under attack from Democrats and Republicans unhappy at Hagel's previous support for the now-abandoned "don't ask, don't tell" policy that barred gays and lesbians from serving in the US military, as well as disparaging comments Hagel made about the appointment of an openly gay US ambassador in 1998.

Obama also nominated John Brennan to replace disgraced general David Petraeus as head of the CIA.

While far less controversial than Hagel's appointment, the nomination has also been criticised because of Brennan's involvement with the Bush administration's backing for harsh interrogation techniques that many have described as torture, although Brennan denies he supported their use.

Brennan had been a candidate to lead the agency in Obama's first term but withdrew his name from consideration. In doing so, Brennan told Obama that he was "a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration, such as the pre-emptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding".

If the White House can successfully steer the nomination of both men through Congress then – alongside John Kerry as secretary of state – the trio will form the nucleus of Obama's national security team for the next four years. The civil war in Syria, threats from Iran and North Korea and the final stages of the US involvement in Afghanistan are among the pressing issues that will fill their in-trays, as well as the long-running issues as diverse as Middle Eastern peace, the advance of China and the remaining danger from al-Qaida.

The event also saw farewell remarks from Leon Panetta, the current defence secretary, who joked that he was going to spend more time at his walnut farm "dealing with a different set of nuts".

Obama ended by calling for a speedy resolution to the nominations, appealing to national security needs: "I hope that the Senate will act on these confirmations promptly. When it comes to national security, we don't like to leave a lot of gaps between the time that one set of leaders transitions out and another transitions in. So we need to get moving quickly on this."

Cabinet nominations not tainted by scandal are almost always confirmed by the Senate – although it is a sign of the rancour among Republicans that even a former colleague is forced through a bruising, drawn-out confirmation process


Richard Adams in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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