WASHINGTON — After a punishing week, former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel and his allies strived Friday to salvage his potential nomination as the next secretary of defense.
That included apologizing to gay rights groups upset over comments made 14 years ago and pushing back against suggestions he hasn't been tough enough on Iran or supportive enough of Israel.
A key Senate Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, joined the Hagel doubters this week, saying he would actively oppose Hagel if he were nominated, according to the Wall Street Journal. Cornyn is the GOP whip and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which would handle Hagel's confirmation hearing.
“Some of Sen. Hagel's positions would either render America weaker or create ambiguity in regard to our role in maintaining security and peace,” he said.
In two separate open letters, former military commanders and ambassadors late this week came to Hagel's defense.
The first saying Hagel would be highly qualified came from a group of 11 former military commanders, including retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, former national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
They noted the challenging job that awaits the next defense secretary and wrote, “This is all the more reason why someone with a proven record of dedication to America's national interest is so necessary.”
The other letter came from former ambassadors, expressing strong support for Hagel's nomination. It said that he has impeccable credentials and that he has stood up for the nation's interests, regardless of the political cost.
“He has always supported the pillars of American foreign policy — such as: a strong NATO and Atlantic partnership; a commitment to the security of Israel, as a friend and ally; a determination to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and the defense of human rights as a core principle,” they wrote.
In a letter in The World-Herald's Public Pulse on Friday, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha's Temple Israel also defended Hagel. He cited long conversations over the years and noted that the former senator had addressed his congregation numerous times.
“Through our long friendship, I discovered in Chuck Hagel a staunch, credible supporter of the State of Israel,” Azriel wrote. “I found a great love in Chuck's heart for the Israeli people and their desire to live in peace and security.”
He said he had heard Hagel speak “in support for sanctions on Iran, against the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the need to avoid any contact with and not support the terrorist organization Hamas until it agrees to recognize Israel and renounce violence.”
Hagel himself responded to Thursday's criticisms from gay rights groups over comments in a World-Herald story from 1998. He had questioned the effectiveness of then-President Bill Clinton's nominee for ambassador to Luxembourg, describing him as “openly, aggressively gay.”
“My comments 14 years ago in 1998 were insensitive,” Hagel said in a statement Friday. “They do not reflect my views or the totality of my public record, and I apologize to Ambassador Hormel and any LGBT Americans who may question my commitment to their civil rights. I am fully supportive of 'open service' and committed to LGBT military families.”
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