President Obama nominated former U.S. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., to head the Defense Department on Monday and in doing so picked a fight with Senate Republicans over Hagel's past statements on Israel and Iran.
Obama also announced the nomination of John Brennan, his White House counter-terrorism adviser, to head the CIA after retired Army Gen. David Petraeus resigned following his admittal of an extra-marital affair with biographer Paula Broadwell.
In picking the 66-year-old Hagel, a former Army enlisted man, to succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Obama said the nation's troops would be "getting one of their own." Obama said the CIA agents would also be getting a new leader who understood their concerns. Brennan previously served for 32 years as a top analyst at the CIA.
Obama made no reference to the growing opposition to Hagel's nomination, but instead focused on the credentials he would bring to the Pentagon job as the first Vietnam combat veteran to serve as Secretary of Defense, and the first to have received two Purple Hearts.
Hagel would also be the first to have received a college degree under the GI Bill, which he earned from the University of Nebraska in 1971 after returning from Vietnam.
"Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction," Obama said of Hagel, who served as a squad leader in 1967-68 with the Army's 9th Infantry Division in Vietnam and was wounded twice. Hagel understood that "sending Americans to fight and bleed in the mud, in the dirt, is something we do only when absolutely necessary," Obama said.
In his own brief remarks at the announcement, Hagel said he would try at the Pentagon to "advance global freedom, decency and humanity" while serving the nation and "especially its men and women in uniform and their families."
Opposition to Hagel's nomination has been mounting since his name emerged in early December as a front-runner to lead the Pentagon. Hagel's selection comes in an era of budget cuts under a new White House defense strategy putting more focus on the Pacific region.
A full-page ad in Monday's Washington Post sponsored by the Log Cabin Republicans, a GOP gay advocacy group, charged that Hagel's apology for remarks more than 10 years ago defending the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the military amounted to "Too Little, Too Late."
But the main opposition to Hagel involved his past comments about Israel and his openness to engagement with Iran.
"The appointment of Chuck Hagel would be a slap in the face for every American who is concerned about the safety of Israel," Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said last month.
Hagel came under scrutiny from pro-Israel members of Congress from both sides of the aisle over his comments in a 2006 interview with author and former State Department Mideast peace negotiator Aaron David Miller.
"The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here," Hagel said, but "I'm a United States senator. I'm not an Israeli senator."
In a Dec. 23 appearance on NBC's "Meet The Press," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., declined to say whether he would support a Hagel nomination.
Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee who would preside over Hagel's confirmation hearings, has also been stand-offish on the prospects of Hagel running the Defense Department.
Hagel's long-standing advocacy for easing sanctions on Cuba has drawn fire from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), the son of Cuban immigrants, who has said through a spokesman that he might put a hold on Hagel's nomination.
In a statement Monday, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House Majority Leader, said that "Hagel's nomination telegraphs weakness in the Middle East and defeatism in Afghanistan, where our Afghan partners will surely be concerned and our Taliban and Iranian adversaries will surely be emboldened."
The criticism of Hagel was offset by strong support from veterans groups who echoed Obama in citing Hagel's combat experience.
Robert E. Wallace, executive director of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said: "the Veterans of Foreign Wars considers Chuck Hagel — a twice-wounded Vietnam War infantryman and former two-term U.S. senator from Nebraska — to be uniquely qualified to lead the Department of Defense."
Paul Rieckhoff, head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called Hagel "a man of great integrity who knows what it's like to put his life on the line for his country. He has walked in our boots, and we know we can trust him to always have our back."
The opposition to Hagel was less about his policy stances and more about opposition to Obama's foreign and defense agenda for the second term, said Lawrence Korb, a military analyst at the Center for American Progress, a think tank with close ties to the Obama administration and to former President Bill Clinton.
"No one is more qualified to be secretary of Defense that he (Hagel) is," said Korb, a Navy veteran of Vietnam. "He has more Purple Hearts than his 23 predecessors (as Defense Secretary) have combined," Korb said.
The critics "don't like Obama's policies" and were using Hagel as a convenient target, Korb said. "It's a way to get at him (Obama)."