McConnell in 2007: Hagel “One of the Premier Foreign Policy Voices”

President Barack Obama will nominate former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary to replace Leon Panetta, according to Democratic officials.

Politico predicts that “is likely to ignite a raucous confirmation battle.”

The AP meanwhile reports that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be taking a wait and see approach to the nomination:

Sen. Mitch McConnell says that the next Pentagon chief must have a complete understanding of the U.S. relationship with ally Israel and the threat from Iran.

Some of Hagel’s former Senate colleagues have questioned his pronouncements on Iraq, Israel and the Middle East. McConnell tells ABC’s “This Week” that Hagel “has certainly been outspoken” on certain foreign policy matters.

McConnell says that if Hagel is nominated, he wants to see if the former Nebraska senator’s views “make sense for that particular job.”

But in May 2007, McConnell headlined two fundraisers for Hagel in downtown Omaha, praising him as “one of the premier foreign policy voices” and as “a man of extraordinary principle” who tells people what he really believes. McConnell lauded Hagel as a “solid, thoughtful, conservative Republican” whose voice is invaluable to the nation, Don Walton of the Nebraska Journal Star reported:

The tribute served as a vigorous response to Hagel critics who, as the Senate GOP leader phrased it, say that “somehow (Hagel) is not much of a Republican.”….

Hagel is “an indispensable member of the Republican team,” McConnell said. McConnell also “described Hagel as ‘a man of extraordinary principle’ who tells people what he really believes.

“It’s not spin,” he said. “It’s not calculated.” Hagel, he said, is “one of the premier foreign policy voices (and) one of the giants in the United States Senate.”

During an interview after the fundraiser, McConnell stated that many of Hagel’s warnings about the Iraq war had been vindicated:

“Many of the predictions Chuck Hagel made about the war came true,” the Kentucky senator said in a brief interview after his remarks at a fundraising reception. “They have proven to be accurate.”

Hagel’s views on the war “have not diminished his effectiveness,” McConnell said, and may, in fact, increase his effectiveness over time.

Walton explained that “Hagel warned against a U.S. attack against Iraq without broad international support and careful planning for the aftermath. Most recently, he has opposed President Bush’s increase in U.S. troops while supporting changes in the U.S. military mission and gradual withdrawal of most combat troops.”

Hagel ultimately decided not to run in 2008. Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy points out that Hagel’s Republican colleagues had only good things to say about him as they bade him farewell when he retired from the Senate, including McConnell:

“In two terms in the Senate, Chuck has earned the respect of his colleagues and risen to national prominence as a clear voice on foreign policy and national security,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). “He has consistently fought to expand free trade, particularly with Vietnam. Chuck’s stature as a leading voice in foreign affairs has earned him a reputation, in just 12 years in the Senate, as one of Nebraska’s great statesmen. This is a tribute to his intelligence, hard work, and devotion to a country that he has served his entire adult life.”

Rogin identifies other Republican senators who were for Chuck Hagel before they were against him, including John McCain, Jon Kyl and Lamar Alexander:

“When Senator Hagel came to the Senate, his actions often reflected his experience as a combat veteran. He did what he believed was best for the men and women in uniform, and he defended his positions forcefully,” said Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (R-AZ). “Senator Hagel has continued to protect and defend the country, notably through his work on the Foreign Relations and Intelligence Committees. He had strong opinions, and he was never shy about letting them be known.”

“Senator Hagel’s heroism and service serving side by side with his brother in Vietnam is one of the most fascinating, heroic stories of any member of the Senate,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN). “With that sort of independent background, you can imagine he brought to this body a sense of independence, a great knowledge of the world… [H]e understands the world better than almost anyone, and he works hard at it. He has been independent in his views, willing to criticize those he thought were wrong, including those in his own party. …  We will miss Senator Hagel.”

“To those who worked with Hagel in the Senate, the GOP’s turn against their former boss is a betrayal of the comity and mutual respect the Nebraska lawmaker and his GOP colleagues shared for so many years,” Rogin adds.

“Hagel and his former GOP colleagues may have differed strongly on some issues, but there was no disputing his deep credibility on matters of foreign policy or national security,” one former Hagel staffer said. “These recent attacks amount to a mix of revisionist history and political gamesmanship, not a substantive examination of his record. And I think most of his former colleagues know that. This whole dynamic is a product of the trial-balloon method; it will change dramatically if he is actually the nominee.”

Photo: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell speaking at CPAC 2011 in Washington, DC. Gage Skidmore/Flickr.

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.