WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had encouraging words Tuesday for his potential successor, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel.
Panetta told The World-Herald he has known Hagel, a Republican, for many years and described him as smart and capable. He noted, however, that taking over an organization of more than 3 million people isn’t easy. “The ability to put his arms around it will take a little time, but I think he can do it,” Panetta said.
Panetta’s comments came just before a luncheon address at the National Press Club during which he discussed his tenure as Pentagon chief and the challenges facing the nation’s military.
Panetta has indicated that he is leaving, but he has made no formal announcement. Hagel is viewed as the leading contender to replace him.
Hagel has declined World-Herald interview requests.
During his speech Tuesday, Panetta talked up the country’s recent military achievements, including progress in Afghanistan. He said that international forces there have reversed a five-year trend of growing violence and that he made strides on transitioning security responsibilities to Afghan forces.
But he also talked about challenges and the need to reshape the country’s military in an era of limited resources, molding it into a force that can effectively respond to complex threats from foes that have increasing technological prowess.
Those could be challenges Hagel will tackle if he is nominated and confirmed. His confirmation process could involve some fireworks, however, based on intensifying criticism from those who contend that he has been insufficiently supportive of Israel.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., issued a statement Tuesday that said Hagel would be a poor choice for the job. She said he has not supported policies to isolate Iran.
“I would also hope that former Sen. Hagel’s past support for protecting the interests of terrorist groups over the interests of Israel — America’s most reliable ally — would raise red flags,” she said.
Causing a stir were some quotes from Hagel in the 2008 book “The Much Too Promised Land.” Hagel was quoted as saying that most lawmakers play it safe and sign whatever pro-Israel letters are put in front of them but that he had resisted signing them.
Hagel further said in the book, “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here. ... I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”
His potential nomination has been attracting supporters, including the advocacy group J Street, which bills itself as the “political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.”
J Street posted a statement backing Hagel. It said that President Barack Obama heeded Hagel’s advice to engage Iran in dialogue and that the approach made it easier to build international support for sanctions against Iran.
“Sen. Hagel has been one of the most thoughtful voices in Washington for two decades on questions relating to American policy in the Middle East,” the group said.
“He has also been a staunch friend of the State of Israel and a trusted ally in the Senate, speaking out on behalf of America’s commitment to Israel’s security.”
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