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Obama turns to security pragmatists

Kerry at State, Hagel at Defense would bring a bipartisan boost

The Washington Post, AFP-JIJI

John Kerry and Chuck Hagel, who will likely head President Barack Obama’s second-term national security team, have much in common, including decorated service in Vietnam and their opposition to the Iraq war.

More importantly, perhaps, they also share the prospect of quick and painless Senate confirmations if they are nominated. Avoiding a fight with Republicans is a boon as Obama confronts conflicts with Congress over taxes and a distracting war of words that scuttled the expected nomination of Susan Rice, the ambassador of the U.N., as secretary of state.

News networks CNN and ABC reported Saturday that Obama has settled on Kerry to succeed Hillary Rodham Clinton as head of the State Department. CNN cited a Democratic source who had spoken to Kerry, while ABC mentioned unnamed sources. The White House did not immediately confirm the reports.

Kerry was regarded as Obama’s second choice until Rice withdrew her name from consideration Thursday amid Republican threats of a bruising Senate confirmation fight. Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska who is regarded as a moderate, would succeed Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Both Clinton and Panetta have announced plans to leave office soon. Their successors, along with a replacement for disgraced CIA Director David Petraeus, are expected to be named before Christmas.

Kerry and Hagel share Obama’s pragmatic approach to national security. Assuming they are nominated and confirmed, the two men will quickly face thorny decisions on the diplomatic and military fronts, including possible military intervention in Syria and Iran, closing down the Afghanistan war and how to engage a changing Middle East and a rising China.

On Friday, no longer focused on salvaging Rice’s candidacy, White House officials began warming to the idea of Kerry as chief diplomat. Officials who had discounted his candidacy hailed his international stature, the missions he has undertaken for Obama in the past four years and the ease with which he would probably be confirmed by his Senate colleagues.

“He’s extremely knowledgeable. He’s creative on foreign policy issues. He’s somebody who wants to solve problems and is prepared to take some risks to do so,” said a former senior administration official.

After a losing the 2004 presidential campaign, in which he was accused of being an Iraq war defeatist who was too willing to talk to Washington’s adversaries, Kerry found his place in the foreign policy spotlight under Obama. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, a post he took over when Joe Biden became vice president, Kerry became an activist in the Senate and a trusted administration emissary.

He traveled to Afghanistan in the fall of 2009 and persuaded President Hamid Karzai to accept a runoff election. The senator played a similar role for the White House in Pakistan, where he helped broker the release of a CIA contractor arrested on suspicion of murder, and later persuaded Islamabad to return parts of a U.S. stealth helicopter that crashed during the Abbottabad raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He was the first senior U.S. elected official to meet Mohammed Morsi before and after he became Egypt’s president.

Still, Kerry is not personally close to Obama, and he has accumulated many critics after nearly 30 years in the Senate.

The so-called “Swift Boat” veterans, who attacked his record as a decorated naval officer in Vietnam during his presidential campaign, have already voiced disapproval of his potential selection. He also is likely to face questions over his dealings with Syrian President Bashar Assad before the country’s civil war began.

Kerry has kept a low profile in recent months. Arriving at Boston’s Logan Airport on Friday from Washington, he told swarming reporters he had “no comments at all” on reports he was now the favored candidate to be secretary of state.

Hagel would give the administration a bipartisan boost, although the most conservative Republicans consider him suspect. His moderate views on most foreign policy issues are roughly in line with Obama’s first-term agenda, and his Republican credentials may make planned cuts to the Pentagon budget more palatable.

Part of Hagel’s appeal to Obama is his history as an early Republican dissenter on Iraq, the issue Obama rode to prominence as a freshman senator. Hagel called the Iraq troop surge “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam.”

His chief drawback is likely to be opposition from prominent U.S. supporters of Israel, who question his commitment to Israeli security.

Hagel voted against Iran sanctions in 2004, 2007 and 2008, and declined to join a call on the European Union to designate Hezbollah a terrorist group. After leaving office, he urged Obama to open talks with the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and opposes Israel’s existence.

“I think it’s fair to assume that a record like that would raise some eyebrows, and more,” said Josh Block, president of The Israel Project.

Hagel served two terms in the Senate, ending in 2008. He crossed party lines to endorse Obama in 2008 and now cochairs Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

He teaches at Georgetown University and chairs an establishment think tank, the Atlantic Council, where he gave a recent speech praising U.S. engagement overseas.

“Engagement is not surrender, it’s not appeasement,” he said in a slap to hawks suspicious of foreign entanglements or the ceding of U.S. pre-eminence.

Christopher Preble, vice president of the conservative Cato Institute, wrote approvingly about the former senator last week, saying, “I expect that Hagel will generally advise against sending U.S. troops on quixotic nation-building missions.”

Hagel would follow a recent pattern of Democratic presidents naming a Republican to lead the Pentagon. Obama asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to stay on in 2009, and President Bill Clinton picked former Sen. William Cohen.