15 February 2013, 16:18

Republicans in US Senate: targeting Chuck Hagel with Barack Obama in mind

Republicans in US Senate: targeting Chuck Hagel with Barack Obama in mind

On Thursday, Republican Senators effectively blocked the motion to stop debate and allow a vote by the full Senate on confirming former Republican senator Chuck Hagel as a new Secretary of Defense.

The motion to go ahead with the confirmation vote by the full Senate needed 60 votes, but fell short of the required number by just one vote with almost all Republican senators voting against it. At the last moment, the Senate majority leader Democratic Senator Harry Reid changed his vote to "nay", to allow himself to bring the nomination up for another vote at any time.

The final tally thus became 58 to 40. This means that if and when the senators vote on the nomination as such (which requires a simple majority of 51 votes), Chuck Hagel will be easily confirmed as defense secretary.

The GOP senators did their best to deny that the vote was a filibuster. They primarily demanded that the administration disclose more details concerning the September 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi when four Americans including the US ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens were killed. Also questioned was Chuck Hagel's stance on the notorious "Iranian nuclear problem" and his former comments with criticism of the Israeli lobby in Washington. In the Republican view, Hagel may be too soft on Iran and not supportive enough of Israel.

Critics of the Republican vote, including Senator Reid and President Barack Obama indicated that the vote was a tragic mistake at a time when the US is getting ready for a pullout of troops from Afghanistan, and that leaving the US military without a Pentagon chief would further endanger the world in this period of uncertainty.

Trying to tone down such worries, current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that despite his overtly demonstrated desire to get back to growing walnuts on his Californian estate, he is ready to work as defense secretary until Chuck Hagel's nomination is confirmed.

In trying to answer whether the GOP vote was a filibuster or not, it would be useful to look at the issues raised as objections to the go-ahead motion.

Indeed, the issue of the Benghazi attack has neither rhyme nor reason in it. Chuck Hagel did not hold any official position at the time and is in no way responsible for it. So, this is simply an attempt of revenge on the failed attempt to reprove former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who really was the one responsible for the tragedy.

As for other reservations, like "the softness on Iran" and "anti-Israelism", the following considerations should be kept in mind.

Chuck Hagel is a former two-term Republican Senator, and President Obama's choice of him as a would-be Secretary of Defense could have been looked upon as an attempt to build up a bipartisan approach. But the devil lies in details.

During his tenure as a senator, and George W. Bush's term as president, Chuck Hagel at first supported the US invasion of Iraq, but later became one of the most ardent critics of the war in that country, along with many Democrats. He thus became a kind of renegade in his own party, and the Thursday vote is simply a reprimand by his fellows for the past deeds.

More so, when it comes to foreign policy issues like Iran and Israel, it should be noted that it is not the defense secretary who makes the decisions. They are taken by the President and Commander-in-Chief and executed (until it comes to military combat) by the Secretary of State. At times, though, the Secretary of State may take the initiative of working out crucial decisions, but that again is no business of the defense secretary. His (her) role is to maintain the capability of the military forces in times of peace, and implement the decisions taken at the top in times of war.

So, whether Chuck Hagel is "soft" on Iran and "not supportive enough" of Israel would not matter much. So, the criticism by his former colleagues in the Senate is not really targeting Chuck Hagel, but rather his patron Barack Obama. By doing so, Republicans are trying to overcome the aftermaths of the devastating defeat they suffered in November 2012, and build a foundation for a more decent performance in 2016, when, by most estimates their candidate will have to face Obama's recent Big Sister, who so aptly escaped their scrutiny by resigning just in time.

Boris Volkhonsky, senior research fellow, Russian Institute for Strategic Studies

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