WASHINGTON — In his effusive endorsement of Chuck Hagel as his choice for secretary of defense on Monday, President Barack Obama set in motion a White House campaign that officials predict will overcome weeks of accusations that the Republican former senator from Nebraska is anti-Israel, anti-gay and soft on Iran.
The president extolled Hagel’s record as a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, saying that he was “the leader that our troops deserve.” He described how Hagel once saved his brother, who was fighting alongside him, after he was wounded by a mine.
“With Chuck, our troops will always know, just as Sergeant Hagel was there for his own brother, Secretary Hagel will be there for you,” said Obama, who was flanked by Hagel and the departing defense secretary, Leon E. Panetta, at the White House ceremony.
“Maybe most importantly,” the president continued, “Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction. He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that’s something we do only when it’s absolutely necessary.”
The president’s message seemed intended in particular for the conservative critics of Hagel, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who have warned that he will face a bruising confirmation battle. White House officials said that Republicans, whatever their policy disagreements, would find it difficult to vote against an acknowledged war hero.
Obama’s announcement was part of a carefully calibrated White House strategy that has included reaching out to pro-Israel lobbying groups, with a goal of wearing down the resistance to Hagel that erupted as soon as he emerged last month as a front-runner for the Pentagon post.
Conservative and Jewish groups reiterated their concerns Monday that Hagel has opposed sanctions on Iran, failed to support Israel, and has advocated engaging with Hamas and Hezbollah. They want him to explain why he once referred to pro-Israel lobbying groups as “the Jewish lobby,” a phrase they said was hurtful to Jews.
Still, it was not clear how hard they will fight to block Hagel, now that the president has nominated him. “We’re not in the opposition camp, we’re in the concerned camp,” said David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, a centrist Jewish group. “We’re going to count on the Senate to examine, as it must, key issues of concern.”
If confirmed, Obama said, Hagel, 66, would be the first former enlisted man and the first Vietnam veteran to serve as defense secretary, and one of the few ever wounded in war.