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Bessent: Controversy should not disqualify Chuck Hagel or William Brennan

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference

President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference with chief counter-terrorism adviser John Brennan, left, and former Sen. Chuck Hagel in the East Room at the White House. (Jan. 7, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

The sniping over Chuck Hagel for defense secretary started even before he was picked for the job earlier today. Now that his nomination is official, the Senate, which will weigh whether to confirm him for the job, should stop the incessant nit-picking.

Any president should get the top staffers he wants and trusts. That includes William O. Brennan, the former CIA agent and Obama’s chief counterterroism adviser who was nominated today to be the next CIA director. Brennan should be questioned about his enthusiasm for targeted executions of suspected terrorists abroad, but his nomination has ignited little controversy.

As for Hagel, the Senate should review his credentials, record, judgment and integrity. That’s what the conformation process is all about. But unless some legal or ethical breach or malfeasance comes to light that is serious enough to raise legitimate doubt about his fitness to serve, the Senate should put partisanship and ideology aside and give him a fair confirmation hearing.

So far no one has questioned the credentials of the decorated Vietnam veteran, businessman and two-term Republican Senator from Nebraska. He appears well suited to take on the challenge of managing defense spending cuts while maintaining a strong military. But in destructively partisan Washington, everything is contentious, so a bruising confirmation battle is expected.

Criticism from the right has focused on Hagel’s early opposition to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a senator he voted to give the Bush administration authority to go to war, but later criticized the conduct of those wars. He was certainly not wrong, or alone, in questioning how those long wars were waged.

Some on the left question Hagel’s commitment to equal rights based on a shot he took at a Clinton administration nominee for an ambassadorship in 1998, who he called “openly, aggressively gay.” Hagel has apologized for the comment.

But the most contentious issue is likely to be Hagel’s views on Israel and Iran. He called in the past for negotiations with Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that the United States and Israel have refused to deal with directly. He opposed some unilateral economic sanctions against Iran imposed to dissuade that nation from developing nuclear weapons.

And in a 2006 interview, Hagel was quoted as saying, “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here,” leading to suspicion of anti-semitism and questions about the strength of his support for Israel. But what some see as anti-Israel sentiment appears to be the sort of tough, independent thinking that should be valuable in a defense secretary.

Plus, it's worth noting that Obama will determine the positions the United States takes on Iran and Israel and the Palestinians -- not his defense secretary.

Obama trusts and respects Hagel and Brennan and wants them for the key national security posts. Absent some disqualifying future revelations, they should be confirmed.