WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to nominate former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel for defense secretary and counterterrorism adviser John Brennan to lead the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has set the stage for potentially rancorous confirmation battles in the U.S. Senate.
Even before he was officially nominated, the rumored selection of the blunt-spoken Hagel raised objections from some lawmakers. A few Republican senators have already said they'll oppose his nomination because of his votes against Iran sanctions and a comment he once made about one of Washington's most powerful special interest groups, the pro-Israel lobby.
The selection of Brennan, a 25-year CIA veteran who is Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, is less controversial but not entirely worry-free: He was once thought to support Bush-era enhanced interrogation techniques for terrorist suspects and has been a strong defender of the United States' contentious use of armed drones
-- under Bush and Obama -- against militants in Pakistan and other countries.
"My No. 1 criterion in making these decisions was simple: Who is going to do the best job in securing America?" Obama said at an appearance to officially nominate the two men at the White House on January 7. "These two leaders have dedicated their lives to protecting our country. I am confident they will do an outstanding job."
Obama first considered Brennan for the CIA post in 2008, but Brennan withdrew his name because of questions about his position on torture. In a letter to Obama at the time, he sought to allay doubts by saying he was "a strong opponent of many of the policies of the Bush administration, such as the preemptive war in Iraq and coercive interrogation tactics, to include waterboarding."
At the White House, Obama praised Brennan's leadership of the country's counterterrorism strategy, which encompasses intelligence, defense, and law enforcement.
"In moments of debate and decision, [Brennan] asks the tough questions and he insists on high and rigorous standards," Obama said. "Time and again, he has spoken to the American people about our counterterrorism policies because he recognizes we have a responsibility to be as open and transparent as possible."
Obama's nominee for secretary of state, Senator John Kerry (Democrat-Massachusetts), has broad Senate support and is expected to be easily confirmed.
Stephanie Sanok, deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said if all three men make it through their Senate hearings, Obama's second-term national security team will be a group of highly respected men to whom he is already close and who bring deep knowledge of their respective fields -- diplomacy, counterterrorism, and defense -- to the table.
"With John Brennan, John Kerry, and Chuck Hagel, you have a team of public servants who have a certain gravitas within the international community, within the intelligence community, within the defense establishment," Sanok said. "All three are also [already] close advisers to the president -- they have had long-standing relationships with him."
Sanok predicts in terms of policy, the trio would oversee a rapid drawdown of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, revisit U.S. policy toward terror suspects, reevaluate the drone program, and be advocates of multilateral action in crises.
As for Kerry and Hagel, their shared combat experience in the Vietnam War has deeply shaped each man. Kerry became an antiwar activist after the war and has been a leading voice for diplomacy during his nearly 30-year Senate career.
Obama called Hagel "the leader that our troops deserve."
Hagel has spoken out against the use of U.S. military power, including when talk has swirled of war with Iran. He wrote in "The Washington Post" in 2009 that "it's easy to get into war, not so easy to get out."
In 2007, Hagel accused the Bush administration of being "dishonest" and "criminal" when it made the case for invading Iraq.
But it's a reference to Washington's "Jewish lobby" that Hagel once made -- along with his votes against Iran sanctions and terrorist designations for groups like Hamas -- that makes him a target of conservative groups.
"Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel?" a television ad by the Emergency Committee for Israel asks. "President Obama says he supports sanctions on Iran; Hagel voted against them; Hagel voted against labeling Iran's Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group. And while President Obama says all options are on the table for preventing a nuclear Iran, Hagel says military action is 'not a viable, feasible, responsible option.' President Obama, for secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel is not a responsible option."
Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican-South Carolina) told CNN on January 6 that Hagel is "an antagonistic figure when it comes to the state of Israel."
"I'll have a hard time supporting anybody for secretary of defense who believes that the Iranians are misunderstood, we should just negotiate with them, not sanction them, and [would] ask Israel to negotiate with Hamas, who's killing Israeli children," Graham said.
Meanwhile, Israeli parliament speaker Reuven Rivlin also weighed in by saying Hagel's nomination is "cause for concern" for the Jewish state.
Only a few Republican senators have actually said they'll vote against Hagel's appointment. Since cabinet confirmations require just a simple majority, which Obama's Democratic Party has, Hagel's nomination hearings are expected to produce fireworks but end with his confirmation.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast stirred the pot on January 8, suggesting Hagel's appointment to lead the Pentagon would improve relations between Tehran and the United States and bring "practical changes" to U.S. foreign policy.
As for Brennan, the CSIS's Sanok says he's much better positioned now to become CIA director than he was in 2008 because he's had "four years to get inside the head of the U.S. president" as Obama's top counterterrorism adviser.
Confirmation hearings are expected to begin in a few weeks.