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A view of what's really behind Hagel nomination fight

From CNN's 'Early Start'
January 9, 2013 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Chuck Hagel's nomination could be most contentious of President Obama's second term
  • Columnist: Hagel nomination is Obama's attempt to change terms of foreign policy debate
  • Republican Hagel initially supported war in Iraq but later became an opponent
  • Beinart calls opposition over Hagel's past comments about Israel a "smoke screen"

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama has nominated former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel as his next defense secretary and anti-terrorism chief John Brennan as CIA director.

Hagel's nomination could be the most contentious of those Obama is making because of positions the former lawmaker took on Israel and Iran and his opposition to the troop surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

CNN's John Berman on Tuesday spoke to Newsweek and Daily Beast special correspondent Peter Beinart about "Why Hagel Matters," the piece he wrote on Hagel's nomination:

CNN: Peter wrote what I think is (one of the) most ... interesting and compelling articles about the Hagel nomination, explaining it perhaps better than anyone I've seen, including the president.

The first paragraph of the piece, you write, it may prove the most consequential foreign policy appointment of his presidency because the struggle over Hagel is a struggle over whether Obama can change the terms of the foreign policy debate. Explain that for me.

Peter Beinart: I think so far, the debate about military action in Iran has been conducted by and large in Washington, as if Iraq and Afghanistan didn't happen.

As if we haven't learned anything from the disaster (of) these two wars over the last 10 years. I think the real struggle between Hagel and his foes is he wants to bring some of the lessons in to the Iran debate that we learned about (Iraq) and Afghanistan.

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He talks very compellingly about the fact wars once launched can't be fully controlled. He is very cognizant of the enormous financial cost that these wars have imposed on the United States, and I think the heart of the hostility is the fear that his recognition about what happened in Afghanistan and Iraq will make taking us to war in Iran harder.

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CNN: You suggest there are no consequences for the Iraq War in terms of those who supported or imposed it.

Beinart: What I said if you listen to Republican foreign policy discourse, with the exception of a few people like Chuck Hagel, you would think the Iraq War had been a great success.

Because all of the same people who said it was a great success are defining in large measure the debate over war on Iran, pushing the United States closer, and I think Hagel is a (messenger for) ... the president to say, "Hold on a second here.

"I am going to set the bar for war higher than George W. Bush, and I don't think this is a simple and easy thing."

CNN: Why does Obama need that? Obama opposed the war in Iraq for longer than Chuck Hagel. Hagel voted for the invasion.

Beinart: Yes, that's right. Chuck Hagel did. But ... (he was) one of the few Republican senators who, after the war started, he began to rethink his view of the world. It's not only about Iran. I think the other big thing about the Hagel nomination is that Obama wants someone to bring the Defense Department back into balance with America's financial resources.

CNN: Is this a smaller foreign policy? A smaller defense policy?

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Beinart: I think it is. The dominant Republican way to talk about the defense budget is to completely separate it, wall it off from all considerations about the national debt.

Chuck Hagel doesn't see it that way. He's a lot like Dwight Eisenhower, who people forget drove the defense budget down quite dramatically because he believed America's real power was its fiscal health, its economic health.

White House officials reach out to Jewish community to answer Hagel concerns

CNN: A lot of fire around Hagel's nomination has to do with Israel and Hagel's support and the lack of support as the case may be for Israel. (Here's) ... what Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said about Hagel, "Comments he's made about the so-called Jewish lobby, which seems to denigrate the efforts of pro-Israel individuals, myself included, who view that relationship as a special relationship, one that's important to our national security and stability in the region."

Hagel suggests he misspoke or shouldn't have used those words. But is this a real problem for him?

Beinart: No, I think this is really a smoke screen. If Chuck Hagel had the same views on Iran and defense spending as John McCain, no one would even be talking about these comments. I think it's really a sideshow.

One of the most important Jewish leaders, Malcolm Hoenlein, used the same phrase -- "Jewish lobby" -- just last December. Yes, it would be more accurate to call it, I think, the kind of right-wing, pro-Israel lobby. But the truth is many of the people in the pro-Israel lobby are, in fact, Jewish, as is myself. One of the groups is the American Jewish Committee.

So to suggest this is in any way anti-Semitic, when many, many Jews, including a rabbi from Omaha, has testified to (Hagel's) good relationship with (the) Jewish community I think is character assassination, to be honest.

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